Voices of NWF’s Young Leaders Assembly: The Cure For “Nature Envy” by Sarah Haynes

NWF   |   June 9, 2011

As a student, I have had my fair share of what I call ‘nature envy’ moments. You know, the ones where you are sitting in the classroom and suddenly find yourself staring out a window (if your lucky) or just day-dreaming (if your not so lucky) about being outside in nature. This phenomenon happens to increase exponential as the weather gets warmer, the days get longer and the landscape gets greener. If you have experienced ‘nature envy’ then you will certainly understand why I chose to participate in a Permaculture Certification course on a certified organic farm in the Caribbean this past winter.

Permaculture can be thought of as “permanent – agriculture” and was originally coined by Bill Mollison, but it can also be described as designing human systems that meet our needs while increasing the health of the eco-system. Most Permaculture Design Cources (PDC’s) are held on or within natural places that are incorporating the principles of said design. I’ll expand on this later…

First, let me set the scene. I had been diligently studying food security, sustainable farming, reading massive amounts of books, writing papers and giving presentations, but I had yet to get a single bug bite from my graduate work. That all changed the day I arrived in St. Croix at the Virgin Island Sustainable Institute (VISFI) . I along with 15 other college (and beyond) students (whom presumably also suffered from nature envy) started on a 2 week, hands-on course in Permaculture Design. We lived in rustic, off the grid eco-cottages, walked 10 minutes to a shared natural stone bath house with outdoor showers, cooked and ate group meals from the land, crammed lots of great information into our brains by doing it and got load of bug bites! And I ate up every minute of this adventure and learned a lot more than just how to design a landscape.

The Virgin Islands Sustainable Farm Institute (aka “the farm”) looks nothing like the landscapes we traditionally call farms where straight rows of crops are neatly separated by squarely fenced farm animals. VISFI is a living example of permaculture design principles utilizing the natural world as the model. For example, the “mandala” garden is located just a few short steps from the community kitchen and looks more like a mediation garden with trees, flowers and vines all winding down the path but everything in it is edible including the chickens pecking for grubs. The sheep and goats are in an octagonal shaped enclosure with multiple grassy areas to allow a new ‘salad bar’ (as Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms calls it) every few days. Everything on the farm was planted and planed with a purpose and usually has multiple purposes. Proximity to use, Multi-functionality and Beauty all happen to be principles of permaculture.

Permaculture Design is unique in that its principles can be applied to more than natural landscapes. Some of them sound more like Taoist sayings than design guidelines, but they really work. A few of my favorite are:
  • “Make the least change for the greatest effect.”
  • “The problem is the solution.”
  • “All of nature gardens!”

Though I know I will continue to apply the principles I learned on the farm, the biggest lesson learned was how to cure my perceived “nature envy”. I learned that humans, like all of the nature, need some basic things to survive. Yes food, water and shelter but more than that, we need community! We are not individuals separate and apart from the natural world, we are in fact an integral part of that web of life.

To take ourselves out of the equation and work to “save the environment” is to completely ignore we too are part of that environment. The fight to save natural places and the plight to be happy, healthy people are one in the same. I will never again have nature envy, or nature deficit disorder (as Richard Louv coined) because I now know without a shadow of a doubt, I am nature! I need the contact with my natural community to survive just as the roots of a plant need the nutrients from the soil. This realization has influenced my career path and my day-to-day choices more than any textbook or lesson plan ever will. I hope when you feel that tug, you also remember to reconnect with your natural community… and bring a friend!

Sarah Haynes is a Sustainability Master’s student at Lipscomb University in Nashville Tennessee and a NWF Fellow. She works for Great Outdoors University, a Tennessee Wildlife Federation program creating opportunities for youth to connect with nature.