Starting with an Acorn – Hoping for a Forest

Karen Osborne
Tuesday, 22nd September 2020

Karen Osborne shares her renewed journey to self-reliance and lighter living, inspired by Maddy Harland's editorial about Covid-19's potential for systemic change.

Who'd have guessed - little ol' me writing my first ever Permaculture article  - all thanks to the moving and truly inspiring words of Maddy Harland (PM guru) now firmly embedded in my psyche. In her powerful Editorial exploration of our potential societal Covid-19 response (Issue 104), Maddy states:

"We need to re-gear employment to become climate-stabilising, regenerative and offer Universal Basic Income. This societal reframing is a huge task. My fear is that we will collectively leap back into escalating the economy and once again filling the skies with pollution as soon as we feel it is 'safe' to do so. But perhaps enough of us will have tasted the purity of the morning air, savoured the absence of frenzy, the new shoots of garden greens, and will decide there is no going back. Will the agency of Corona be our longed for opportunity for systematic change?"

My response to you, Maddy (as a relative PM newbie) - a personal pledge - to play my small but hopefully significant part in this 'systematic change'. This pivotal promise takes the following form and with great pleasure I announce that its 'new shoots' have already proudly pierced the bubble of an ill-conceived, ill-constructed, profligate pre-Covid reality.

Dream Big, Start Small

Can I call myself a long-term eco-activist? With a cruel, curt Covid-19 awakening came a personal re-evaluation of this title and a growing belief that 'activism' was exactly what was needed in these troubling times ahead - but with actions that truly start in the home. Time to stop being so very dependent on others who often have far greater needs than mine, to build some small sense of fulfilling self-sufficiency and to focus on getting my OWN house and garden in order. No more convenient denial here - to dream BIG, I have to start small.

Fittingly, having enthusiastically, if not surprisingly, completed my 2020 New Year resolution (5 UN CC:Learn /eduCCate Global1 online courses by April, contributing to Climate Change Teacher Accreditation, plus joining the glorious growing ranks of proud PM readers) I now found myself driven to review and challenge my own green, sustainability and eco-friendly practices - assessing them against my rather worn-out eco-warrior war-cry as privileged educator of a nation's young people left cheated and vulnerable by an outdated, out-of-touch, outperformed education system.


'Fit for Purpose' Education 

One could suggest that we have ALL assumed the reflective and receptive role of 'student' in this challenging Corona cursed era - and that perhaps we've previously been too quick to arrogantly adopt the title of 'grown-up'? I think it's fair to say that many of us have some way to go yet. But what of our precious young people, so swiftly stripped of their right to seize adventure, push boundaries and celebrate the joys of youth? These are indeed hard times for individuals, communities and the planet but with an infinite opportunity for learning. The question is - will we choose to acknowledge the crossroads that we're at and be brave enough to revisit, review and reshape our existing societal structure - if not for ourselves, for our innocent youth? This is our once-in-a-life time window to reinvent ourselves, to establish new and appropriate societal values and embed genuinely relevant, respectful and sustainable ways of living supported by a fair and 'fit for purpose' education system. 

And what would this education reformation look like? That will surely take a good few 'growing seasons' to establish and flesh out, but we have to commit now and think radically - our historic national inclination for the odd tweak here and there frankly just won't 'cut it'! PM has previously provided some exciting glimpses of what could be – helpful visions of a productive and progressive classroom for the future. These ways of thinking, this proposed new curriculum is not without precedent and I am lucky enough to have experienced it in embryonic form at least 15 years ago in a Special School setting on the North Norfolk coast. The establishment of Rural Science as a discreet subject across year groups reflected an early emerging eco-consciousness amongst both staff and students, where healthy cross-curricular approaches were also embraced to develop and embed a genuine love for the land. With students allocated personal plots to nurture throughout the year, echoing the region's wider agricultural heritage, such education also provided hugely valuable preparation for those individuals possibly wishing to gain future employment in this 'field'. Further potential useful models can be found in the growing body of forest and farm Schools2 dotted up and down the country offering exciting outdoor opportunities to young learners, their families and communities desiring an alternative, creative and flexible education outside of the more mainstream system.

Exploring and Embracing New Approaches

Relieved to observe that the multiple benefits of these rich experiences are increasingly recognised in state settings too, I have seen expanding numbers of our mainstream schools starting to build successful links with these outward-looking establishments, organisations and outdoor classrooms. Tapping into their wealth of resources, skills and understanding, schools are finally acknowledging the significant impact of this interaction with our natural, wider world - with improvements to be gained in mental health, physical fitness, social interaction and communication, independence and team skills, building resilience...the list goes on. Indeed, its valuable role in promoting and supporting positive mental health has clearly helped to shape a range of recent resources and provision available through CAMHS, the Discover College and other mental health support services. This slow but significant shift in thinking, this pubescent hint of a capacity for open-mindedness, for exploring and embracing new approaches and fresh ideas, must surely offer us all hope for the future.

I'm not rejecting technology, of course - I'm no Luddite or advocate of mass migration back to horse and plough. Let's keep it 'real' and recognise that science and innovation will be key to tackling the exponential economic, social and health challenges that lie ahead. It's imperative that we seek creative solutions to local, national and planetary problems and that we value those who can ask the right, 'wrong' and often 'brave' questions - with the curiosity, drive and determination to provide at least some of the answers.

A Relevant, Respectful and Flexible Curriculum

Granted - perhaps I am that 'dreamer', but I know I'm not alone. My vision? An empowering and inclusive network of international schools creating one global learning environment - providing a relevant, respectful and flexible curriculum able to respond creatively to individual and local community needs. Schools will work collaboratively to equip and prepare our young people to address the growing global challenges they will inevitably confront - summarised successfully by the modern- day mantra - 'Think global, act local'. I acknowledge there are many tough decisions to make on this front. With increasing pressures on the planet’s resources, there will be no perfect model here and often hard choices - we have heard them sell off school playing fields for much needed housing, or to repurpose this precious land to support curriculum development? The knock-on effect of any one course of action has a tendency to create tidal waves rather than ripples. Hence, the importance to start any such review on a societal 'grass roots' level to gain a broad and accurate overview to inform creative holistic approaches.

So where do I sit, as an old style Secondary and SEND state teacher, in this vision of the future? You’ll find me today perhaps a little disgruntled, but not totally disillusioned. I can say, in all honesty, that I entered the profession with a strong desire to 'make a difference', as cliched as it might seem, and that initial ambition and resolve has never left me. My patience and resilience has certainly been tested at times (probably more by management than students) but I have remained true to my core beliefs and values - every child DOES matter. However, I find myself feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the idea that I am one of those small cogs in a system that is not exactly broken but redundant and ineffective. Am I part of this current conspiracy that is fooling and failing our young people - neglecting to deliver the necessary messages, the learning to genuinely support the lives they will be living and robbing them of the hope they deserve for the future? One thing I know for certain - big change is what's required and I'm happy to rise to this challenge. But as one expounding the virtues of connecting with Mother Earth, have I truly committed to this principle in my everyday existence?


Magic Moments of Solace

As a Key Worker and one lucky enough to have retained a job during these testing Corona times, I worked throughout Lockdown, trying to mentally off-set the personal stresses and strains of preparing and delivering five live lessons a day with regular reminders of the mounting deaths, huge pressures on our NHS, the outstanding and generous efforts of the nations volunteers, along with growing numbers of unemployed, financially challenged and unsupported families in crisis.  I guess we all found ourselves on occasions seeking some escape during this period - be it physical or mental. Some were more successful than others in this mission - or would a better word be 'luckier'? Our personal circumstances - location, finances, family setup, support networks etc. certainly shaped our very different experiences. However, it's interesting to explore where we found those magic moments of solace and how many of us looked to nature for some kind of affirmation, fulfilment and release - whether walking the dog, enjoying a run, strolling in the park or grabbing a trowel. My therapy, my mental health support, undoubtedly took this form. Needless-to-say, I am extremely grateful to my very understanding pets - oh yes, and my family too - haha. I am also hopeful that in some wee way, on some small level for that awful, beautiful moment in time, we ALL were able to recognise our planet's precious reminder of what truly matters in life and for the need to love, care and respect Mother Earth and our fellow global citizens, as summarised by the wise words of Patrick Whitefield in his hard-headed ‘Permaculture in a Nutshell' - 'Earth care, People care, Fair shares'.3 I hope all have gained a glimpse of what really could be...and ‘should’ be...and choose to become those agents of change - genuinely deciding, in Maddy's words, 'there is no going back'!

Modelling - Starting with an Acorn; Hoping for a Forest

And so to my personal Covid-19 pledge. With a pint size garden (4.6 x 10.5m) and only three large planters (90 x 120cm - with two more on the way) it's difficult to imagine that I'll ever be anywhere close to veggie 'self-sufficient', but surely it's about taking some simple steps, however small, towards this aspirational goal and modelling what I preach. And hand on heart, I can honestly say it has opened my eyes, providing a much better understanding of the processes involved to put food on my plate and the hard decisions made by farmers, small-holders and all those involved in numerous related occupations. Predictably and inevitably, we gain a greater appreciation for the products of our personal labours and are much less inclined to take these life-supporting essentials for granted.

My pledge has certainly taken me along a path of discovery - it's been an 'organic' process with one project inspiring another. A brief example: my mixed success at growing cauliflowers ('mixed' largely due to not netting them early enough) led to the establishment of a butterfly breeding programme. Instead of diligently clearing them of my vulnerable brassica leaves I decided to flip my failing efforts to a more successful form of nurturing - hence, my own mini butterfly farm. Alright, so those pesky pierisrapae certainly won out in the end, but how rewarding it has made my days observing their awesome life cycle and watching a regular stream of these beautiful butterflies take flight for the first time in their short but precious existence. To date, I have been proud midwife to 30 pulsating pupae. I have participated in the nation's butterfly count 2020 and have great plans to pursue further insect rearing projects next year to accompany my partner's beekeeping interest, including a wildflower planter to support endangered butterflies.


Powerful Planetary Message

Whilst planters support a mini-market garden of carrots, lettuce, peppers, runner beans, sweetcorn and a variety of herbs in a 'stacking' arrangement, two large terracotta pots have been added to the front of the house, each containing a maturing fruit tree to help off-set carbon-emissions, offer further encouragement to birds and insects, as well as providing additional personal produce. And thanks to the informative and affirming contents of PM, I have enjoyed my forage into natural tea composts, exploring alternative slug and snail repellents and discovering the considerable benefits of what were previously viewed as troublesome, worthless weeds - amongst them wood sorrel, dandelions and borage. Nature's gifts have been delightfully abundant this year with many sweet surprises, including the unexpected sprinkling of sunflowers like little stars appearing randomly amongst newly planted seedlings - sown in previous years and awaiting those perfect conditions, that precious personal window created through recent land disturbance and enrichment.

I have to confess, watching the lively labours of a resident wasp colony as it worked on a rapidly expanding nest hidden high amongst our birch tree leaves brought its moments of concern. But seeking expert advice and captivated by the swarm's selfless cooperation and collective commitment, the decision to leave it in peace was ultimately relatively easily reached. Yes - we have missed our large, summer birch-based ladybird population, but those hardworking wasps have performed the same helpful task of addressing our annual aphid infestation for which were are very grateful. 

Sunflowers, Wildflowers and Barley Wildlife Borders

Wistfully and proudly, I review my short, strange, unexpected but joyous journey through the spring and summer of 2020, whilst preparing to embrace the energy and enchantment that I am confident autumn will bring. I pass on much thanks to those generous souls in my local community who unknowingly have helped to support my efforts with their bags of garden clearance topsoil and thoughtful trays of superfluous seedlings sat at the end of paths and drives - I am grateful for such kind, inspiring offerings. I would also like to send a 'shout out' to all those like-minded individuals, tapping into a Corona induced collective consciousness - for the expanding array of bountiful pots, plots and planters found on window sills, front and back lawns and allotments across an awakening nation - they have raised my spirits and have fired my imagination, injecting new energy into personal projects at times when fresh ideas were particularly welcome...Here's to the creative and caring farmer who chose to line his maize field outback with a stunning sunflower, wildflower and barley wildlife border - such a magnanimous, fostering and sustaining act - and what beauty you brought into the lives of local walkers at this taxing and testing juncture. And on that note, it would be utterly neglectful not to acknowledge the huge and life-changing role my beautiful bud, Baz (AKA rescue dog Bailey) - loyal canine friend, has had in the past and current year. To him, I owe both my physical and mental health maintained through our daily routine of much worshipped country and woodland walks. He has been a rock and a constant when the Covid storm hit, exposing me to the wondrous joys of nature - to the blossoming of wild garlic, bluebells and birdsong when for many the world was looking pretty bleak.

Hope for a Sustainable and Resilient Future

So before signing off to tend to my patch - where next, what goals? My long-term permaculture and environmental ambitions are many, including the establishment of autumn/winter planters and the formation of possible links with Lewes Transition Town4 and our local Planet Barcombe (seeking to protect the immediate environment and beyond).5 I'm also keen to explore potential involvement in a wider community project enabling residence to grow and buy locally. I am confident that the small steps taken over the last few months were but a tantalising taste of things to come and I look forward with great enthusiasm to the 'green' adventure that lies ahead. With projects planned and already taking shape, I am certain others will pop-up along the way - coincidences and connections bringing warmth and wonder with them when embraced with an open mind. And will I still be stirring youth with a passionate rally-cry? You betcha! But this time - with a new song from a glorious green gospel that preaches optimism and hope for their sustainable, resilient future. I will spread these words with a wave and a smile and let no Covid facemask conceal it! 

Karen Osborne is an artist, designer and photographer (trained at The London Institute). She has been teaching for over 30 years as a Head of Art and English Teacher. The natural environment has been a frequent focus for both personal work and teaching modules, in turn contributing to broader cross-curricular activities and leading to wider community projects. Today, she continues to be involved with a number of Green initiatives and organisations promoting environmental awareness and climate change action.

1 UN:CCLearn - / eduCCate Global -
2 Forest Schools - (FSA) / Farm Schools - [SF&G- Social Farms and Gardens (SF&G) established and coordinates the School Farms Network]
3 Permaculture in a Nutshell, Patrick Whitefield, Permanent Publications, 2019 Edition, p5
4 Transition Town Network
5 Planet Barcombe- 

Useful links

Designing a community orchard with permaculture

Creating sustianble livelihoods and capturing carbon

Book: Permaculture in a Nutshell