Kirsten founded Milkwood with Nick in 2007 – dedicated to teaching and sharing permaculture skills for living like it matters. She is author of the best-seller ‘Milkwood’ and is known for her permaculture advocacy, and workshops in permaculture skills – from fermenting to natural beekeeping to foraging for wild food. Kirsten, Nick and their kiddo Asher are based in Cygnet, Southern Tasmania.
PA’s Kym chatted with Kirsten about life in Tassie, building community resilience, the privilege of teaching and sharing in students learning, and life after the bushfires.
Thanks for chatting with me! Can you tell us a bit about Milkwood and how did you end up in Tassie?
Thanks Kym! I run Milkwood with my partner Nick Ritar and a small team. We started off as a little farm up in Mudgee in Central New South Wales which was attached to a larger family farm. And then over the years we became hosts of amazing permaculture educators, running courses and got hooked on the idea of skills transfer and enabling people to change the world and their lives with good information – and we haven’t really stopped! We’ve been going 14 years and we were planning on making our way down here [to Tassie] 4 years ago but got side-tracked living at Melliodora for three years – helping grow food, and learning a lot which was an amazing experience. Then we decided it was time to put down some roots and have our own patch, and so we moved to Tassie, the best place in the world!
Milkwood has run courses and projects across different parts of Australia for more than a decade. Besides shifting to Tassie, what are some other highlights?
We’ve been so blessed over the years working with some amazing knowledge keepers from all over the world. Working with incredible teachers like Sandor Katz, Rosemary Morrow and getting to marinate in these amazing people, their knowledge and the networks that come with them and getting inspired with what people are doing. We were lucky to try our hand at starting a permaculture farm which was a highlight too. We’ve also been lucky meeting so many incredible students over the years who get the courage or time to come to a permaculture or cheese course which is part of their journey, and we get to interact with them. People like you [Kym was a Milkwood student] and being part of a movement of people who for a million different reasons are wanting to reconnect with their landscapes, and their ecosystems and their communities. Finding ways to do that is just a huge privilege to be part of peoples journey, that’s probably the biggest highlight.
It’s been a rocky start to 2020, highlighting gaps in resilience and preparedness for many. Can permaculture play a role here – and should the focus be on self sufficiency or building community?
I think we both know it should look like building community resilience 😊 Growing enough food and building a fortress or whatever it is – while your community goes thru tough times around you is not fun and not a good way to live for your community, or for you. I think permaculture has got so much to give during these crises. Through the bushfires and the lockdown there has been so much skill sharing and information that permaculture has been able to offer our communities. In some ways it is more about [permaculture educators] standing fast and being emotionally available to people and to help them access the skills, design info and new ideas, as it as much about facilitating things. I think a lot more people are hungry for knowledge right now or realizing priorities, and as permaculture educators, the best thing we can do is stay open and be available for those people and communities as they come in the door saying “Um how do I do this” or “Ah, do you have any strategies on how to do this?”.
You and your family were in Mallacoota during the bushfires which would have been incredibly tough. Firstly, how are you all going? And secondly, do you think the fires led to greater climate change action?
We’re pretty good thank you. We came out of that experience thinking “wow that was the most bizarre summer ever” and everyone feeling all the feels about climate chance knocking on the door. And feeling hopeful there would be a silver lining that would rally and motivate people to change gears on the response to the climate crisis. And then of course we then had this current interesting time [with Covid].
There was a similar community response to Mallacoota in Bega and lots of other communities affected – you saw communities be their best selves in and after the crisis which reaffirms everything that permaculture stands for. I think we are still fed this popular narrative “oooh you better look after your own because as stuff hits the fan no-one is going to come and help you”. But as we’ve seen time and time again, and Rebecca Solnit writes beautifully about this, communities in crisis are incredibly powerful meta-organisms – we out do ourselves lots of the time if left to our own devices and I’m hoping that out of those experiences from the fires, though I know many people are still experiencing the immediate fall out from them, I hope that it is inadvertently skilling up our communities to support each other and respond awesomely in the future. So that’s what I’m hopeful about.
You write lots of blogs for Milkwood to share info which is amazing, including one earlier this year about ‘Paying the Rent’. What prompted you to write this and why is it important?
I wrote this blog as we started our Permaculture living series – one action/week you could take as a household to create every day climate change. I was quite embarrassed with myself as the first one was not what needs to be considered first – which is our relationship with the Indigenous people on the land on which we live. When we begin any Milkwood course we begin with an ‘acknowledgement to country’, and then the first part of our permaculture courses we discuss Indigenous Australian culture and agriculture, and an overview on what that means for the country we live in, the stewardship of the land, topsoil, biodiversity etc. It’s always about half the class saying they hadn’t thought about this concept before – it’s amazing that this needs to be said in some ways but it does. So that’s why I wrote it – to provide actual action you can take within that sort of context for acknowledging country and also acknowledging the disparity, ongoing oppression, racism and these big actual problems being experienced by Indigenous Australians.
The ‘pay the rent’ idea is paying a small weekly or monthly tithe to your local Indigenous organisation – we live on their land and in Australia it was never ceded. This concept has been gathering a lots of steam in North America too. It has had some ups and downs with how community responds to it, but it’s simple and plausible and has a direct economic benefit to your local Indigenous organisation – so why the hell wouldn’t you? It’s an acknowledgement of country in a form of currency that for better or worse we all understand. Our local Indigenous health organisation who do amazing work didn’t have a mechanism set up to pay the rent, which is telling in itself in that it wasn’t happening that much. But once it was set up we were able to pass their details on to a bunch of other families who were keen [to pay the rent] too – we are very happy and proud to do it.
You’ve now moved your courses to an online format – tell me more about your courses and how are you finding teaching online?
Last spring we launched our first online course called Permaculture living – a 12 week program to kickstart your permaculture life. The teaching team are myself, Nick [Ritar] and David Holmgren – which is fantastic as the course is based on his 12 principles. We lead you through a series of actions as well as the theory of permaculture and the principles, and you develop a plan on what you can change in your every day. With a longer view on your new habits impact on your ecosystems, health of the planet and your self reliance – all the good things basically!
It’s a differ kettle of fish to teaching a 2 day or 2 weeks course, we were concerned that it might not feel as real, or be as useful in an online format. And we worried about that for a long time before we did it, and as it turns out while it is a different beast, there is a huge amount to be gained by good communication and online support. And the fact that people can do it in their lounge room, nursing their baby or after everyone has gone to bed – you make up for in accessibility. We are all really enjoying it and watching the students interact and show off what they are doing. We feel very privileged being part of these students journeys and being part of a better household and community.
What else 2020 hold and any final messages?
Ah yes – before lockdown we were making an online mushroom growing course – which we are still making but our filmmaker is in Victoria so can’t physically get here to film us as yet! But we are looking forward to sharing knowledge on mushroom growing and a bunch of other permaculture design, gardening and other courses over the next year or so. We are trying to be super flexible at the moment to keep creating this learning content in a way that actually works and keeps everyone safe. I’d like to also say how amazing Permaculture Australia is – and Permaculture Tasmania too! And also everyone should keep going, and you are all doing great 😊
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