My trip to the US and what I’m bringing back in my baggage

When the plane touched down in LAX in February, I knew very little about what was ahead for me in the coming 6 months. The agenda was pretty much blank and I would never have guessed that I was going to spend an entire three months on a Permaculture farm in the Pacific Northwest. There were a few steps leading up to that.

Nature. It’s all about nature.

A first important realization happened while car camping across the Southeast, from Los Angeles to Taos in New Mexico. We spent a week sleeping in the back of our Subaru station wagon, which we parked over night on campgrounds across California, Arizona, Nevada and Colorado. The realization is as banal and obvious as it was crucial to the further steps: living our cozy city life, we got completely detached from nature. More specifically: when you live in the back of a car, you experience how sunlight and temperature define the beginning and end of your day. You feel how weather and conditions influence your options and choices. You look more precisely at the goods you purchase and what you’ll really miss and what you really won’t. And most importantly: it reminds you just how beautiful nature is – when you wake up with the sun in Joshua Tree’s Jumbo Rocks or next to the hot springs in Gila national park… So I resolved to stop living that far away and detached from all this beauty.

The world is drowning in shit, while I’m bathing in milk and honey

For the next stage, in Taos, we lived in a tiny adobe house, not equally engulfed but still immediately surrounded by nature. We followed the daily NPR news and background stories and were constantly reminded of injustices happening around us. Discrimination, deportation, despotism, desperation and exploitation. On a train trip to Chicago, DC and New York, I was confronted with the ubiquitous problem of homelessness. It was very troubling and I couldn’t comprehend how abundance and despair are allowed to coexist side by side in a country. All of it left me feeling guilty, especially since I was currently just taking the freedom to further improve my privileged life. I resolved that I wanted and I could do more. Just where to start? I also watched a lot of documentaries and read a few books, worked on my “New World Theory” idea… and slowly the realization materialized, that I wouldn’t achieve anything by sitting on the couch but that I had to tackle things head-on.

Wanting to get my hands dirty

Taking together what I knew – I wanted to become active, I loved being outdoors and wanted to learn something new – I started researching volunteering opportunities on farms. Permaculture at that point was merely a buzzword to me, that I felt intrigued by. After some weeks in the amazingly beautiful but relatively pale and minimalist landscape of the New Mexican high desert, I focussed my research on the lush Pacific Northwest, around Seattle and Portland. I applied at two farms and was finally convinced by the very personal but equally professional approach of Kateen at Compass Rose Farms. Only after my arrival it became apparent to me, how central her focus on teaching and learning is and that her “Dirt Rich School” is the place to learn all about Permaculture.

I initially signed up for 3 weeks, being my usually cautious self. I expected to get my hands dirty, my back aching and to collect a few insights into planting, maintaining and harvesting plants. What happened instead was, that I stayed for 3 months, loved getting not only my hands dirty, my back strengthened and received a vast depth and breadths of knowledge. Not limited to plants, but also about animals, water, soils, microbes, and so on. Last but not least, I found more and more conviction that Permaculture is my thing and that I want to continue with it. (Read more about “What’s Permaculture and why do I like it so much“)

What’s next? (At least my current idea of it)

Despite having learned tractor loads of new things, I still know nothing. Farming, Permaculture in particular with its focus on diversity, is a vast field. But according to my disposition, I want to take things into my own hands as soon as I grasp the big picture. Furthermore, I want to do it myself and for myself. So here is my current vision:

  • I’ll return to my IT job at Panter in Zurich.
  • I’ll reduce my work hours there to 60%
  • I’ll use my remaining time to pursue Permaculture and see where it takes me

That’s my journey, the way I see it right now. I’m excited and happy to take it on. I think it will be a great combination of known/unknown, structure/freedom, cutting-edge city-life/next level country living. And I’m comfortable with the openness and the uncertainty, of where it will take me. It’s very likely that life will take very different turns and that’s all good.

And my imagination doesn’t stop there. I’m dreaming up pictures that motivate me and make me feel like, for the first time in my life, I have a passion and something to work towards – even if it will take a while.

These are some images I have:

  • I always liked Ticino – so why not go there? And there are other favorites of mine, that I would like to be closer to.
  • I love cycling, so I want to go explore more and see if I find a place that speaks to me and that I want to make my own (I have no idea how far my financial situation will allow me to go, but that too will be explored).
  • For the first time in my life, owning my own property sounds really appealing.
  • I imagine a typical “rustico” stone house, with granite table and pergola, some trees (preferably leaf trees), remote enough to have peace and quiet, accessible enough to make it work (whatever that means).
  • I’ve been inspired by a couple of projects that combine architecture, permaculture, community, art, etc. together. Being involved in such processes seems really appealing.
  • I imagine that, if it goes fast, I could find something this year, do admin stuff through the winter, and start working on it next year (probably too ambitious).
  • I would start with observing the land (of course) and possibly low-maintenance plants and work on the accommodation.
  • I will acquire further Permaculture knowledge, by reading, taking courses around me, or even returning to Compass Rose Farms next year for a Permaculture Design Course?
  • Mid-term I would like to produce food for myself, long term I can envision producing things for the community too and educating them – but that’s really too far ahead.
  • I’m fascinated by combining some tech and business aspects with the farm experience, such as automating watering, remote-controlling and observing certain processes, creating supporting online- and mobile tools for daily operation or management (which would of course be made available to the community), etc.
  • In line with what I’ve been teaching and preaching to all startups, I’m going to use business model canvas and lean startup tools to further specify my ideas, to measure and iteratively improve them.

I’m writing all this down to put it out there. Not as a checklist but as a benchmark, also for this blog. For me and the reader to follow and compare, where my journey takes me and how vision and reality alter or meet in the future.

One thought on “My trip to the US and what I’m bringing back in my baggage

  1. Peter, just stumbled across your blog and very grateful that you shared your wonderful journey. You have obtained some great wisdom and are not too old to do something with it so go with your instincts now and don’t put it off until you’re weighed down with more stuff and commitments. Ulrike G

Let me know your opinion

Join the dialogue, start the discussion, add your praise and criticism!