5 things I learnt from living on a permaculture farm

Location: Sikhiu, Thailand
Date: March 2017

“I’m doing a photography course on permaculture farms around the world,” she said.

Perma-what?

I politely asked, “What is permaculture?”

And that sparked off one conversation after another with people who seem to talk about permaculture like it’s the next big thing. So many in my yoga class seemed to just know, what is permaculture.

What is this thing that I’ve never even heard of?

I decided to go find out.

A yogi friend introduced the place that she had gone off to, and I hopped on for a ride.

We were on a road for a very long time. The tuk tuk seemed to know where he was going, because when I got off the bus, he stopped by me and said, “Rak Tamachat? Rak Tamachat?” I guess I must have looked like a lost foreigner with my lime green backpack and ready to be shipped off to Farm Farang (Thai word for foreigner).

After twists and turns, we ended up along gorgeous rain trees. Voila, we have arrived. I found Beau who runs the place – an American who used to live in Singapore working in the offshore business. What are the odds – you can’t run far before life says stop running.

The first order of the day, was to clean my own treehouse. I have always been enamoured by the idea, but of course, I forgot about reality. That a wooden treehouse meant mosquito net, mattress and insects as my best buds. The first night, I had an ant infestation. The second night, my mosquito net had a hole. Every day, I made friends with bees, beetles, lizards, sand flies, mosquitoes, geckos and lovely natural neighbors.

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The treehouse
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The cosy room

So what did I learn from living in a permaculture farm?

Accept, learn, and live.

I woke up to a new challenge every day. The first day, ants tried to take over my house. I changed house; ants 1, sheryl 0. My calf started swelling from a vicious series of mosquito bites. Eczema started coming back because of the heat. I burned myself with hot oil while trying to make you tiao. My nose started bleeding from working in the dry heat. And of course, I had to sprain my ankle from walking around in the dark. Every day, I psyched myself to push forward.

And we learn to live. I started learning to identify the insects- which were harmless and which were something to worry about. Living in and learning from nature teaches you not to fight what occurs in this world, but how to work around and make use of what you have. The first step, is accepting that everything occurs for a reason. Then ask the people who live there – because they have learnt from experience. Anything you’re going through – they have been through. Their method if not the best, works for now.And if you find a better way to live, great. Just don’t burn the house down.

What builds togetherness – choose, do, affirm, repeat.

Togetherness is important; you realise this when the environment is challenging. I found comfort in the laughter of friends as we bitched and itched. I didn’t know how to set up my mosquito net, and a classmate helped me with it. I was trained in the Singapore system to take notes, and shared them with classmates who found English a challenge. And we talked about the sharing, and laughed about it. The process of choosing, doing, affirming and repeating is what builds togetherness.

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Making worm castings – mineral-rich soil for our food!

Individual commitment is the building block of community.

In nature, every system works to support the entire ecosystem. The individual commitment of the food chain, the energy cycles, the almighty Sun, and the human labor enables life to continue. I probably learnt this in primary school science, but never quite saw it that way – that our big, big world is made up of nothing more than lego blocks.

Togetherness builds community when everyone takes pride and pulls their own weight , but not when some expect others to walk on for them. And it is a constant reminder by individuals to speak up and say, you shouldn’t do that. At the heart of it, permaculture is about building self-sustaining communities that take ownership of how they want to live – they self govern. Everyone takes responsibility for behavior, and the outcomes take care of themselves. When most in the group starts to agree with behavior that you don’t, I guess that means it’s time to convince them, or find a different community.

Do every job with pride, and of course, use your brains.

There are many ways to get things done – in permaculture, the word that stuck with me was optimisation. Using edges to achieve a multiplier effect and maximise output. I reached a point in life where I was tired of taking shortcuts and finding easy ways to get things done and getting away with it. I wanted to slow down, to take the longer road, to do everything the “proper” way. I felt unbelievably fortunate to have had opportunities in life which many didn’t, and I didn’t know what I did to deserve it.

But the truth is, it is innately human, to get the most out of doing the least. When you have to toil the fields, build your house and the sun is beating down your backs, you start thinking: “Is there a simpler, faster way to get things done.” There is no “proper” way. Instead of telling yourself work harder or to be similar to others, tell yourself, do every job with pride. Never stop putting effort into life, and of course, use your brains.

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Building our house using earth bags

Find your purpose, and the people who share it.

Being a permaculture newbie, I was surrounded by people who had already been researching on how to build their earth bag house or build their solar panel system. Everyone had a piece of land they owned or intended to own (and land outside of the city is very affordable, my friends), and here I am, a city girl from Singapore who always casually said I would retire on a farm but never really knew what that meant.

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Air layering. The world looks different from where you stand.

Here in the middle of rural Thailand, I reaffirmed my love for adventure and exploration, for steep learning curves, for the interesting stories of people, and for the road ahead that could not be more unknown. That shiver in the bones, the sparkle in the eyes, the pulse in the breath and flames in mind. Everyday, our conversations were full of: “Did you know…” or “Another way of looking at that is…” or “That’s not entirely true…”

I have always known, but I have always doubted – because I was surrounded by people who would go: that is not possible. Too many times, my eyeballs flipped to the heavens and my jaw dropped to the floor. But inside, I always bore the doubt that maybe I should see the world through their eyes. Maybe I needed to be different. I expected myself to be versatile, even with my own identity. But we learn to accept ourselves for who we are, and it is a constant daily reminder. Permaculture reminded me of that.

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I didn’t know what to expect from permaculture. Because other than a cool name, I honestly never thought much about it. But it turned out to be a way of seeing the world, and yet another way to live. Some say, the only way. But I never believe in absolutes.

If nothing else, permaculture helped me see that, I can. I can learn to live, I can learn to laugh, and I can learn to love whatever life brings. Trust in your ability to learn, relearn, and learn again. You can start from anywhere, and continuing living.

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The sunset along the way home

And if you made it to this point in this long post, here is my master plan for a 1-acre plot in Kranji and how a permaculture farm could work in urban Singapore. I worked on it for 2 days, and I have new-found admiration for all the three-letter acronym-ed organisations that help us live easy on a daily basis. Water harvesting, energy cycles, shelter, nutritious food, community – everything we have taken for-granted is what we actually need to live. Do we really want to forget that?

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Of course, after the heat in Thailand, I had to find snow. Here’s what happened next.

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