Category Archives: Australia

a lesson for city living

Back home in Toronto after my Australian odyssey, I’ve been spending hours unpacking and sorting through the ephemera that I’ve collected here and there. After a day spent meandering lazily around my hood (coffee at ideal in Kensington, picnic in Trinity Bellwoods, more coffee and wandering through the Annex) I came home and sat down to continue shelving and drawering and filtering through my junk from Oz.

I came across this watercolour sketch that I remember painting one sunny afternoon on the top floor of the Berkelouw bookstore & cafe in Newtown. A jazz trio kept it mellow and a coffee kept me alert, and I read this quote and felt inspired.

“When we awaken to the artificial separation that would have us see the environment as out there, rather than a part of us…then it is so much easier to know that when we poison the water, air or soil, we poison ourselves”
– Katrina Shields

I think it’s an important lesson for my present situation. Unadulterated and immersive experiences in nature in its pure form are less accessible to me here than they were in Australia, and it’ll take a bit more effort to erase the artificial separation. I’ll try to keep in mind that the environment is not “out there,” it’s us, we’re it, and it’s time to inhabit that idea…even amidst the radiant white hot concrete mess of a Toronto summer.

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it’s all good at milkwood

New post from my other blog: it’s all good at milkwood.

(Probably should have posted it here first…it’s education related.)

Sharing our designs at the Permaculture Design Certificate course @ Milkwood

For the Seventh Generation

The seedlings have been planted, the mulch has been spread, and I have one more day in the Byronshire before jetting back to Sydney.  Last Friday marked the end of the first ever Permaculture Challenge, a program that I had the privilege of facilitating alongside a team of inspiring adults and sixteen amazing Byron Bay teens.

These 15-17 year old students showed up three weeks ago with their iphones and their cliques, sneaking out for cigarettes and tuning out (and in some cases, completely passing out) on beanbag chairs. But throughout the last three weeks, I have watched them plug back into the Earth and in doing so, connect with one another and with themselves.

They were not afraid to get their hands dirty building gardens, getting friendly with  beneficial insects and feeling the crumbly black soil that only months ago was ‘humanure.’ They grappled with  incomprehensible hugeness of the universe and the intricate subtlety of the microorganisms that power our soil-food web. They fought and apologized, cried and hugged, played music and sang, cooked and ate meals together, and evolved into a strong family.  I have learned so much from these kids that I’m finding it hard to say goodbye – I want to stick around and help them organize their social action campaigns,  visit their gardens and share the yield that they produce.

Byron Bay Permaculture Team (Photo by Sangye Christianson)

For me, being involved in this program has been life changing in a way that I had not expected. I signed up on a whim after reading about the program in a Permaculture Research Institute e-newsletter, and had no idea what to expect.

My interest in permaculture goes back to 2005, when I spent the summer WWOOFing at Maya Mountain Research Farm in Belize. but it has taken a back seat to other educational pursuits over the last few years. I’m still not sure where I’m going with these ideas, but I am starting to think deeply about how to work permaculture principles into mainstream educational settings, as well as considering starting a Canadian Permaculture Challenge when I get home. I’ve signed up for a Permaculture Design Course at Milkwood Farm in February, and am grateful that getting involved in these initiatives is starting to give some purpose to  my sojourn in Australia. After all, Australia is where Permaculture was born, and it is thriving in both urban and rural settings.

At the Permaculture Challenge graduation, I surprised the students with my personal tribute to all the hard work they put in to the Permaculture Challenge. It’s becoming a bit of a tradition to write a spoken word poem at the end of an educational experience as a sort of parting gift for my students, as well as a way of  giving closure and processing my thoughts.

Here are two versions of my piece – one shot live at the grad ceremony, where I performed in front of a packed 200+ person audience at Mullumbimby Civic Hall. The other was filmed by my wonderful friend Kamala at her organic farm in the hills near Wilson’s Creek. Lyrics are below.

For the Seventh Generation 

When I was your age they told me,
“Baby girl, it’s a dirty world out there”
So I learned to disinfect
To sanitize and protect
To buy food that’s wrapped in plastic
Now I’m stressed out and stretched out like an elastic band
With antibacterial hands
And five year plans
Lending my dreams to morally bankrupt banks
And borrowing ideas from thoughtless think tanks
And fretting about pollution
 
But now I realize that the problem is the solution
Humanity is not out to tame nature
We are nature
And nature is wild
It’s volcanoes and glaciers and the first breath of a newborn child
 
 So I set out to penetrate this planet’s state
And find out what reverberates
To speak the truth
To speak to youth
To put on some gardening gloves and boots
And give nourishment to roots
To fertilize the tender shoots
That grow and grow from all the seeds you sew
And if you don’t know, now you know
And if you don’t know, that means there’s room to grow
 
Cause I’ve seen a bunch of hellions
With mouths the size of pelicans
Learn to quit their yellin’ and listen….
To the silence….
That’s vibrating with billions of microbial operatives in sublime symbiosis
Guaranteed to do away with postmodern neurosis
 
This quiet eloquence embellishes a truth that’s huge and relevant
It’s grabbing the white elephant
And composting its crap and, hell, maybe even sellin’ it
 
The power is in you – in fact, it’s in your poo
This is some heavy doo doo voodoo
Think about it when you’re on the loo
Imagine every number two
Becoming a permaculture dream come true
 
Like Jack’s magic beans you’ll be climbing to new heights
Permablitzing new sites
Thinking about a healthy planet as a human right
And maybe sleeping a bit more soundly at night
 
Let the earthworms be a part of your community
Speak up in Canberra and make them see
That the harm that’s been done….
Is done.
And we have all the time under the sun
To repair not despair
Tie back your hair
And sit
And stare
 
Observe and interact
If you treat her with respect, Mama Earth’s got your back
Grow some veggies
Use the edges
Put the power back
Into the hands of the many
And these hands will yield plenty
And don’t worry if you’re nowhere near twenty
 
Because this is the future of living education
Without further complications limitations or genetic modifications
Start thinking long-term germination not band-aid fixation
Because it’s not about us,
It’s about The Seventh Generation

Now that’s my kind of classroom…

For the past week, I’ve been in Byron Bay, volunteering as an “Amigo” for the Youth Permaculture Challenge. The amount of learning taking place here is amazing. It’s heuristic, hands on, constructivist, embedded in the local community, and globally aware.

There have been so many inspiring moments over the last week that I don’t know what to blog about first! So here are a few photos of some of the students’ learning moments –  ranging from cooperative engagement in an activity to quiet reflective journalling.

There are so many ways to learn when your classroom has no walls.

 

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Tall Poppies and Birds of Paradise: addressing sexual harassment in Australian culture

Back in Toronto, I was friends with an Australian man. While he was a supportive and emotionally expressive friend, much of our daily banter consisted of ribbing each other, and much of that ribbing was of a sexual nature. If I went on a good date, he’d mock my “game.” If I got dressed up and put makeup on, he’d tease me about my looks. At the time, I thought this was strange – it reminded me of middle school gender dynamics, where the boys and girls who are crushing on one another tease each other relentlessly.

While I’ve only been in Sydney for a little over a month, I’m now able to put that relationship into a cultural context. It wasn’t about us – it’s the culture here. Australia suffers en masse from Tall Poppy Syndrome, a compulsion – possibly stemming from jealousy or from a desire to promote equality or camaraderie between different social strata – to put down successful or distinguished people.

We haven’t quite reached a Harry Bergeron dystopia, but I feel that this culture of put-downs and teasing limits all Australians – the mockers and the mockees. In fact, as I write this post, I can hear the critiques, “Don’t be so Canadian, mate…” and see the empathetic but resigned shrugs, “Get used to it, Aussie guys are assholes.” It limits discourse and makes authentic emotional connections difficult to achieve. It also promotes a culture of sexism and negativity. A weaker blogger might scrap the post in the face of this projected criticism but hey, if they want to call me a prudish or overly PC Canadian, so be it. I was raised to be proud of my cultural sensitivity and able to speak out when offended. And here, I am offended on an almost daily basis. I don’t want to be an average poppy or a wallflower. I want to be a bird of paradise!

I’ve been thinking about this phenomenon since I arrived, but today a friend’s facebook page featured a reaction to Sunday’s NY Times op-ed by Katie Roiphe, “In Favor of Dirty Jokes and Risqué Remarks.” Down under, the whole Herman Cain story was not on my radar, so I had some catching up to do. The American feminist blogosphere is outraged by Roiphe’s claim that a “smart, competent young professional woman” should laugh and shrug off unwanted sexual advances or inappropriate comments about her appearance, and that a workplace free of the risk of sexual harassment would be drab and quiet (because of course, there’s nothing else to laugh or chat about but your cubicle buddy’s boobs).

Roiphe criticizes the “weakness or blurriness” of the language that defines sexual harassment (uncomfortable, hostile, inappropriate) and prefers to euphemize sexual harassment by calling it “colourful.” As a high school English teacher, the issue of semantics was interesting, and indeed, addressing the “slippery” definition could be a productive exercise in a high school English or Law class. But this quote also piqued my interest:

A study recently released by the American Association of University Women shows that nearly half of students in grades 7 through 12 have experienced sexual harassment. Their definition is “unwelcome sexual behavior that takes place in person or electronically.” Which would seem to include anyone who has been called a “whore” or “so hot” on Facebook, or is jokingly or not jokingly propositioned. (In other words, it’s surprising it’s only half.)

So the problem is the overly broad definition of “unwelcome sexual behavior that takes place in person or electronically,” not the prevalence of sexual harassment among teenage girls? Roiphe suspects that by this definition, the percentage should be much higher but immediately moves on, failing to address that even though every girl in the class might have been called flat, easy, or doable, the ubiquity of these comments does not make them excusable. Imagine telling my grade nine student whose friend jokingly called her a slut in the middle of English class, “What’s the problem? Just laugh it off. Now back to Merchant of Venice…hey, maybe you should read for Portia – that shallow ho-bag. Lol.”

I wonder what kind of language and behaviour Australian high school teachers allow. Does the ‘boys will be boys’ attitude apply in the classroom? The relentless sexual jokes in professional settings, and the general acceptance of them, seems to indicate that this is something Aussies have tolerated all their lives.

Frankly, I have been shocked by the way male and female colleagues treat one another here. It’s not just the comments about men being “distracted” by short skirts and cleavage. It’s not just the HR woman telling my senior manager friend that his Canadian accent is sexy.  It’s not just the office party binge drinking that often results in messy inter-office hook ups, sometimes with married bosses. It’s not just the female employees playing ‘who would you rather do?’ about their male colleagues over happy hour cocktails.

It’s the fact that, according to an Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade primer on the status of women, despite a relatively equal rate of education and 58% labour force participation, women hold only 12% of private sector management jobs and a mere 9% of board directorships. The Australian Human Rights Commission breaks it down:

Every year, sexual harassment in the workplace is one of the most common types of complaints received by the Commission under the Sex Discrimination Act. In 2009 – 2010, 21% of all complaints to the Australian Human Rights Commission were under the Sex Discrimination Act, and 88% of those complaints related to sex discrimination in the workplace. The wide use of new technologies such as mobile phones, email and social networking websites creates new spaces where sexual harassment may occur.

Sexual harassment at work is against the law. Sexual harassment can be committed by an employer, workmate or other people in a working relationship with the victim.

Sexual harassment can be a barrier to women participating fully in paid work. It can undermine their equal participation in organisations or business, reduce the quality of their working life and impose costs on organisations[2].

For my part, I will not “get used to it.” I will continue to let people know that I am uncomfortable with inappropriate comments. Last week I filed a complaint against a course facilitator who made derogatory remarks about women, Asians and Eskimos (sic). I will continue to tell my female Aussie friends that they don’t have to laugh, get drunk, or get liposuction to impress their male colleagues. And if I end up in a high school classroom here, I will do my best to encourage my female students to be birds of paradise and to grow tall and bright in a safe – and yes, a colourful – environment.