Bringing permaculture and nature-inspired living to a new audience

by Sarah Spencer

Rob Hopkins' sketch of the Think Like a Tree workshopI recently had the privilege of leading a workshop at the National Permaculture Convergence about my work Think like a Tree.  A standing-room-only crowd demonstrated the need for solutions that take permaculture into the personal and social sphere. Participants explored how learning from nature can apply to their own wellbeing, but also to how they might live a better life; one more in line with the ‘rules’ that nature has applied for 3.8 billion years. 

A change of direction thanks to a personal crisis

Think like a Tree came out of my own Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design, which started as land-based designs for my smallholding and a community woodland permaculture social enterprise, Whistlewood Common. However, ill-health led me to explore permaculture principles (and other nature-inspired ideas) for my health, wellbeing, livelihood and life in general.

I also came to the conclusion that teaching people how to grow food and develop resilient communities isn’t the only solution to the climate and ecological crisis.  I challenged my own views about how to ‘change the world’ and came to the conclusion that the way forward is to encourage everyone to reconnect with nature, learn from it and love it - narrowing the gap between humans and the rest of the living world - a divide forged in deep cultural and philosophical history. If we can see other living beings as evolutionary cousins in an interdependent world, then we might make the effort to care (and dare I say it, make sacrifices) for the future of the planet.

Think like a Tree courses - for anyone, anywhere - guided by nature

From its origins designing my own way out of serious ill-health (I was in bed for a year and a half and was subsequently diagnosed with a rare, immune illness) and inspired by the works of others, such as Looby MacNamara and her ground-breaking book People and Permaculture, I set about designing a workshop and a 15-hour course that could be delivered anywhere, and for anyone. 

The challenge of creating a course that can be applied to changes as diverse as health, wellbeing, careers, livelihoods, retirement, business, parenting, education and more (everything that life brings), was surprisingly easy, because nature’s principles are universal.

The Think like a Tree course is now two years old and the initial formula has proved a success, attracting people from all walks of life - GPs, health professionals, retirees, people wanting career changes, those living with illness (both mental and physical) parents, students, small business advisors and more. The courses have attracted men and women of all ages and abilities, some permaculturists but mostly those who had never heard of permacuture or those who either have the wrong idea about it, or were put off by an inaccurate image.

Accessibility and diversity as core principles

The 15-hour formula is designed to be delivered in a number of formats (six 2.5 hour sessions such as an evening class), or three whole days, or a three-day intensive. My experience and research showed that people find longer courses challenging and often inaccessible, so I designed handouts that built on the sessions to deliver more content in a shorter space of time.  Online courses are in the pipeline, expanding the reach further and to meet demand from overseas (I ask participants not to fly to my courses).

Sarah Spencer and Milly CarmichaelA ‘mycelial’ network

This year I made a connection with Milly Carmichael who shares my vision, and, as a trainer and former health professional, was seeking ways to combine her interest in wellbeing with her passion for permaculture.

Sarah Spencer and Milly Carmichael I have been so privileged to work with Milly over the last year and she is the first element of what we call the Think like a Tree ‘mycelial network’ (based on the ideas of the fungals networks that connect trees and plants). As well as delivering her own courses at Coleshill National Trust, we co-facilitated a course in Derbyshire in August which was intense but immensely fun and rewarding.

Milly and I also co-facilitated the workshop at the National Permaculture Convergence. The one-hour workshop is designed to explain the Think like a Tree concept, explores what makes nature successful, and shares some of the principles that are the foundation of the course.  So far the workshop has been delivered at festivals, wellbeing fairs, as evening talks, to family groups and corporate employees.

November this year will see the expansion of the network, with a new group of facilitators training to deliver the course in their own area, or adapting the material for their own audiences: from small business to education to physical and mental health. Two of the participants are funded by their employer - our local council environment service. One of our facilitators, who is deaf, will be bringing Think like a Tree to the deaf community.

“You should write a book”

A chance encounter with a follow permaculturist gave me the push I needed to think about writing a book. For months I read tree, psychology, permacuture, self-help and natural philosophy books, distilling my thoughts and research into a set of 42 natural principles in six categories (Observation, Purpose, Surroundings, Connection, Resilience, Future). Think like a Tree: the natural principles guide to life was published in May 2019. It's a practical personal development book, with the aim of bring the ideas to a wider audience.

Tree illustration by Keegan BlazeyFinding a purpose

One of the main themes in the book and course is finding your purpose, which is proven to be key to wellbeing. Finding a purpose outside of yourself is shown to be the most empowering and rewarding. Personally, I know having the aim of sharing ideas and tools that help others, but also have the potential to change the way we care for other living beings, gets me out of bed in the morning. I believe the urgency of the situation we now find ourselves in means there is no better time to put ‘being a good ancestor’ (as trees are), on all of our bucket lists.

For courses, workshops and blog visit the Think Like a Tree website.
You can also find them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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Top illustration by Rob Hopkins, bottom illustration by Keegan Blazey, both inspired by the Think Like a Tree workshop.