Earth Repair Corps will be publishing a series of interviews with Permaculture Design Course graduates who have used the education & resources they gained from the course to further their careers in the world of sustainability.
Our hope is to convey what a life-changing opportunity the Permaculture Design Course can be, while learning more about what first attracted these former students to sustainable design and how they have applied those principles since taking a PDC.
We’re continuing this series with Thora Oneil Gray of the Austin Discovery School – read more below.
1) When did you initially become interested in sustainable design and why? Please describe to us any moments in your life that piqued your interest in sustainable, regenerative, and holistic systems.
I started off as a young environmentalist/activist condemning corporations and big government. I was attending protests, speaking up against oppression, etc. This led me to the question: “how can we do this better?”. Standing up and being pissed at the powers that be is not enough, you have to mulch the path, sow the seeds to get the results you want. I was interested in community, alternative building styles, growing food, eating healthy etc. I didn’t hear the word ‘permaculture’ until I moved to Austin. It was like an exciting map of putting together all the basic fundamentals to live more harmoniously with the natural world.
2) What were you looking to learn when you signed up for a Permaculture Design Course?
My first official course was 3 years ago now. My goal was three fold: 1) Take the official course/receive certificate to teach in the future; 2) Plan for the future development of the Austin Discovery School’s new campus; and 3) Invite the community to take stake by adding to the design fundamentals of the school.
3) Who taught your Permaculture Design Course and when? What did you appreciate about that course, and what would you have like to have learned more about?
I asked Kirby Fry (Earth Repair Corps), Caroline Riley (Whole Life Learning Center), and Taelor Monroe (Austin Permaculture Guild) to come to the Austin Discovery School to teach a PDC. Each teacher brought their own unique style of teaching and deep, specialized knowledge. I really appreciated the guest speakers they brought in like Gary Freeborg and Pliny Fisk, as well as any hands on activities i.e. cob construction, Permablitz, and working with the laser level. I wish we had more time to dive deep into soil (I really just need to take a full on college course on soil – I’m totally enthralled by it).
All Images © Woody Welch 2018
4) You’re in a unique position to have hosted a Permaculture Design Course at the Austin Discovery School, and then have had a Permablitz take place at the school. What was that experience like for you, and how may it have helped your school to advance your gardening education program? Please describe to us a little bit about the scope of that Permablitz.
If you want something done… do it! Our little school of now 13 years has grown considerably from 100 students to over 500. When the lease finally was up at our prior residence, our administration looked at buying the buildings in the back half of the property as our permanent address. These were the buildings of the old state school that sat for 30 years unattended and returning to nature. A major renovation took place with many unintended consequences. School was delayed due to the renovation and parents were starting to lose patience. Hosting our first Permablitz was a great way to boost the morale and sense of community allowing all to take stake in our public alternative school. We had over 200 people come out to help install the the food forest. Digging over 300 linear feet of berms and swales on a dramatic slope, as well as planting 30 fruit trees and herbs. Another major hurdle that effected my program at the Austin Discovery School, Ecowellness, was installing a septic system near the gardens. Huge amounts of caliche soil were unearthed during this installation and then spread all over the soon to be annual food gardens!! Almost 2 feet thick in some areas. Ack! We resolved this by importing well over 10,000 bags of leaf debris (thank you Craigslist) and tilling it in before digging our southeast sloping garden beds on contour. Now we practice dry land cover cropping during the summer, and chop and drop a month before school starts to encourage the soil community to thrive without major disruption. Community and gumption – that’s what it takes. We have accomplished so much in such a short period of time with biomass and sweat equity.
5) What other courses, if any, have you participated in that have helped you to learn more about and implement sustainable design systems?
I have attended a Intro to Holistic Management at Green Gate Farms, I’ve studied herbalism with Ginger Webb (Texas Medicinals), taken the Citizen Gardner’s Course at the Sustainable Food Center, bee-keeping classes, and attended teachings with Mycoalliance.
6) Have you been able to apply what you learned from a permaculture design course to your life, and business endeavors? If so, please elaborate.
Without a doubt I use what I have learned with permaculture every day at my job as an educator at the Austin Discovery School. I’m doing my best to leave behind a thriving ecosystem which can also be viewed as a learning lab for students k-8.
7) Have you had the opportunity to teach, mentor, and or pass on information about sustainable design to friends, family, or employees?
I teach young folks currently. I feel confident teaching the basics to them. We do a lot of learning through doing/direct applications which is perfect for their busy bodies. Feeling the weight of a shovel, or the moving of mulch, the tasting of carrots. Kids thrive on this real-world activity with instant results they can see, touch, taste, smell, and feel. We are creating full bodied scientists. Kids who question and get over irrational fears. Because they can make observations and learn to be calm in nature. One day I would like to teach adults, right now I’m still learning by doing, experimenting, and discovering.
Thank you so much for your involvement and initiative, Thora!