Friday 10 October 2014

Suzie Cahn the first guest of 'Building with Clay blog talk-show'


My guest today is Suzie Cahn. Suzie is a Permaculture Designer and Educator, Lecturer, Artist and an Art Therapist. Along with her husband Mike, Suzie runs Carraig Dúlra Permaculture & Organic Farm in Ireland. In Irish, Carraig means rock and Dúlra means nature. Carraig Dúlra is a space where a variety of educational and community initiatives take place. These include: researching and teaching organic growing, permaculture, gardening for bio-diversity, sustainable and traditional skills, natural building, primitive living (or bushcraft), nature courses for children and families, and creative healing workshops combining Art Therapy Techniques with Eco Pscyhology and Nature, as well as, other gatherings and events.

Hello Suzie. Welcome to ‘Building with clay blog talk-show‘. Thank you so much for accepting my invitation. How are things in Carraig Dúlra?

Thanks Anna, they are very good this year. We have had one of our most productive years since setting up. The fantastic long summer helped, but also just at a certain stage of development after you have built up fertility in the ground and in the community things just start moving better. We have been particular pleased with progress on our naturally built barn.
Suzie, you are giving workshops and lectures on many topics like art therapy, permaculture, gardeninig. What is your motivation? What do you want to achieve through your teachings?  

Yes the offerings are diverse just like nature itself. This is part of natures resilience and hopefully mine too. But nature is really the central theme that holds everything I do together. Nature connection is something many people have lost or are in danger of losing. I believe that for humans, our health and well-being, the health of our communities, and our planet maintaining, repairing and developing nature connections is vital. I think there is a way for everyone to do this. Somebody may connect to themselves and nature through creative means using the arts, (which all take nature as inspiration even if that is human nature and expression), others go directly into nature, and some people connect through growing food or building with natural materials. I try to facilitate people in all of these.  

You are a big entusiast of community initiatives. What could be done to make them more popular and effitient local and globalwise?   

In the competitive growth and business model, communities suffer. However, I think new ways are emerging to build community initiatives in fairer ways. More people are taking responsibly for making their communities sustainable and resilient. I think this is because it ultimately benefits more people than competing or waiting for centralised governance structures to fix things. I work within the idea of collaboration or 'commons': where each contribute to their own ability and everyone who contributes benefits fairly. The benefits of this are that value is created within the community and those who make the value share in it. An example is our co-created barn, many students, volunteers, friends and professionals collaborated by design in the build. The value to us is a nice barn on our small-holding, the value to students was real world design and practical learning experiences, to volunteers there were social experiences, learning and the sense of contributing to something bigger than themselves, and some people were also paid for their skills or as a tutor thus benefiting by making a livelihood. An additional value was that environmental impact of the methods used were minimised by using local resources and so local global environment benefits.
Sharing examples of practice local through open days and reaching a wider audience through documenting new approaches, successes and lessons learned through the internet is a great way to make things popular around the world. Searching for permaculture, natural building, and so on on the internet yields hundreds of positive examples that inspire people to try new approaches that we need to adapt to current global challenges.

Suzie, you have set up a meeting group in Wicklow town called ‘Wicklow Community Garden Group’. What is the purpose of this group and who can get involved?

I set up that group back in 2006, and its purpose was to catalyst community gardens in my county. Along with others I recruited, I ran a series of talks and presentations about community gardening examples from Ireland and around the world. I followed up with any group in the county who was interested in starting and over the next few years a large number of gardens got going. There are still new gardens popping up all the time as word spreads about their benefits, learning about growing, social spaces, a place to meet different types of people and reclaiming neglected spaces in communities. I still help any group that wants to get going but the Wicklow Community Gardening Group fulfilled its aims and disbanded recently.

I always wanted to tell you this Suzie. I absolutely love what you call a ‘mid-life crisis gap year’. My fiance Arek and I, we did not have a chance to have our gap year in our 20-ties. When I heard about your recent WWOOFing experience it just gave me the hope that I can still do it one day. Would you tell us a little more about your WWOOFing in Europe?

I think that for me it is necessary to step outside of our lives to gain perspective and in addition I love adventures and travel. I didn’t want having children to stop that and I believe it benefits them giving them multi-cultural understanding which helps create tolerant adults. So we have taken a number of big and small trips as a family. Wwoofing for 6 months in Italy, France, and Croatia was the longest when our youngest was 2. We got to live inside other peoples lifestyles and contribute to their projects. This really helped us re-design our own on our return. We’ve travelled by train couch surfing across the USA and walked 100 kilometres of the Camino de Santiago with our children, and last summer we drove from Ireland to Mongolia with them on a charity trip. We passed through England, France, the Czech republic, Poland, Ukraine, Russia and Kazakstan on route. We were able to visit former students and volunteers along the way. I taught some permaculture workshops in Poland and Mongolia. These experiences gave us a new perspective and helped us appreciate all we had back home in Ireland.
Photo by Carraig Dúlra
While traveling in Europe you also visited Poland and gave the lecture there. Where was it? What was the lecture about and how did you like Poland?

Yes the workshop in Poland was in a community called Bukowiec near Łodź, and I found the people very receptive to the ideas of sustainable design and food production methods. I really loved Poland. The people and the ancient forests. They were like something out of my childhood traditional stories full of mystery and like stepping into a living organism. We don’t have truly wild places like that in Ireland we lost much of our forest cover in the last century and being such a small Island you find that people have almost explored every part throughly.

The other interesting term you are using is NDD (Nature Deficit Disorder). How is Ireland dealing with it comparing to other European countries? What you think could help in this case?

I think that Ireland like the rest of the world is increasingly urban over 50% of people now. However, even our largest cities are small in a world context and Dublin our largest has one of the biggest city parks in the world. So Irish people do still have access to nature but the consumer and media entertainment dominates a lot of peoples time outside of trying to make a living. So the shopping malls are as full as the parks, beaches and mountains especially in winter. I think children here are increasingly scheduled into activities due to pressures on their parents and over exaggerated fears of stranger danger. This means that the childhood I experienced and give to my own children of long periods of unstructured time in nature is rare. This leads to an adult population disconnected from the natural world who have trouble having empathy for the plight of nature under threat from expanding human activities. So letting our children back out into the wild and remembering or discovering its delights for ourselves is a great way to help. In the USA there is a growth of nature clubs with families going out together to explore nature.
The last couple of months were very busy for you and Mike. You have organised a good few workshops like cob & cordwood also permaculture workshops… Please tell us more about this year activities on the farm.

Photo by Carraig Dúlra
We have been involved in natural building on many projects and wanted to have a big project of our own to try out all we had learned. Some learning has to come from trying something out. We co-designed with students and others a round barn. We wanted to use local natural materials for ecological and sustainable reasons but also because these materials are wonderful to work with in a community way. They are also a way to empower others. Our food and shelter systems along with other elements of modern life have been increasingly technological. I believe that giving people the skills to provide their own food and shelter is a great empowerment tool. Some people ask is it going back in time to older out of date ways of doing things and in some ways the answer is yes. We have much to learn from our traditional lives that pre-date the era of cheap fossil fuels as we need to reduce our dependance again. However, we can apply much modern thinking, innovation and science to natural building today to create spaces that are very appealing and functional in a modern sense. This is the key to good permaculture design blending the old with the new but doing so under an ethical framework of earth care, people care and fair share.

One of the recent Carraig Dúlra’s projects is to build the barn. This is very interesting piece of natural building combining couple of different techniques. Would you tell us a little bit about the barn? What is the purpose of it, what stage are you at and what are the techniques used there?

We will use the barn as a farm building but also a wonderful sheltered space for groups visiting the farm to learn. One thing about building with natural materials in a designed way is that the siting of the building and the orientation, the context is taking into consideration. So also are the materials used in different parts. In our barn, we placed it at the entrance to the site as a striking image for people arriving to the farm. We oriented the large windows to the south built into solid cob (clay/straw/sand) to let in light and capture heat. The north part of the barn is built with straw bale for insulation and the west has a lean to part for shelter from our wet winds. The roof is grass sod a cheap way to create a living roof.

On your farm you are offering a wide range of volunteering options. That looks like a great idea for a family day out. Please tell us what we can learn while helping in Carraig Dúlra?

We really welcome people to come and find their niche. In nature, every creature and plant has a niche where they meet their needs and at the same time contribute to the surrounding eco-system. We like to do the same for our volunteers. Sometimes, people help with the poultry, the gardens, forest garden, or new native woodland. Other times, they help with building projects or administration tasks. It all depends. We also create custom courses for groups from our expert tutor panel making a day, weekend or longer exactly what people are looking for mixing all the things we offer.
Photo by Carraig Dúlra
What are the plans for the next months workshops and activities in Carraig Dúlra? What can we expect in the near future?

We have had a couple of year of reflection on our activities and getting ready to continue. Mike and I invested our passion and our savaging in starting the project and getting everything to this stage of development. We need to put Carraig Dúlra on a firm financial footing to continue doing what we do. So we have up-graded our public image with a new website and I have started a blog called “the naked permaculturist” a bit of a tongue in cheek way of taking about “stripped down” or simple living. We are reaching out to new markets and our travels and students and volunteers made us realise the huge interest in Ireland and the rest of the world in the kind of learning we offer.

Would you like to add anything else Suzie?

Your blog interview came at a very good time for us because, I think that people in Poland and Polish people in Ireland and other eastern europeans don’t want to repeat the mistakes of growth based economics on a finite planet. They see the value in sustainable development and have a great opportunity to be examples to other countries so want to learn all they can about permaculture its applications in food, building and other areas. We would be very interested in finding ways to host people on courses maybe with translators as I had in Poland to learn and share experiences.

It's been great talking to you Suzie. I appreciate your time. Arek and I are wishing you all the best ;)

To find out more about Suzie, Mike and Carraig Dúlra please visit their  website and Suzie's blog Make sure you check Carraig Dúlra fan page for the updates. You might also join Carraig Dulra Volunteers Group on facebook.

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