Sirius Livin’


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By Julia Palmer

This summer I had the amazing opportunity to live and study permaculture design in a small eco-village called Sirius Community. It is nestled away in Shutesbury MA, a little known town although it is only a 10 minute drive away from the bustling college towns of Amherst and Northampton. Before  I found this class last spring I didn’t know what permaculture was and neither did many of my friends and professors at ESF. I know now that I had seen it before, or at least bits and pieces of it here and there. Another name for permaculture is regenerative ecosystem design. The idea is that rather than keeping our hands off natural systems we should attempt to heal them and seek to work with nature in everything that we do rather than manipulate nature to achieve a desired outcome. As in reality, it does not recognize humans as separate from the natural world.

What a beautiful idea, right? Even more beautiful was actually seeing it in action. An eco-village is essentially a community of people striving to be self-sufficient, and, as I have only ever visited one, I cannot say too much more about the rest. Twenty people permanently reside at Sirius, and live, eat, work, and play together. Of course the dynamic is not perfect and social problems will arise in any group of people living in close quarters, but their common goal to live more simply and to be as self-sufficient as possible has had tremendous outcomes. The principles of permaculture underlie the way that energy flows through their community. There is no real starting point here so I’ll just list some examples of how their system is working.

When it rains, water is captured and stored in roof catchment systems which use gravity to feed water throughout the buildings for all necessary functions. It is also captured in ponds which overfill and flow downhill to perennial polycultures and forest gardens. Food from the gardens feed the community everyday and scraps are composted and used as fertilizer or fed to the chickens which also fertilize the gardens and aerate the soil. Human waste is collected in composting toilets and can eventually be used as fertilizer.  Urine is diluted and added to wood chips which makes great mulch. A south facing greenhouse is located in the main community center and produces food throughout the cold Massachusetts winters. It also heats the building so well that they often need no additional heat source.  All of the buildings on the property were made from natural and local materials, whether it be cob (a mixture of sand, clay, and straw), local timber, or straw bales with natural plaster finishes. They were surely some of the most beautiful structures I have ever seen.  So not only was life simple at Sirius Community but it was extremely comfortable and fruitful. It makes you realize that the descent our society will soon be forced to take can be something to look forward to, rather than feared.

As I attempt to write this I realize that it is difficult to summarize my experience at Sirius. I underwent so many changes that are hard to describe because it is hard to remember what I changed from. A large facilitator of this change, and more important than everything I have mentioned about Sirius, is the community I became a part of; the twenty people that came together from all across the country for this class were all so different from one another yet hungry to learn about the same things. I could write several more pages just about the people I spent those three weeks with and how much they helped me learn about myself. I experienced changes in the way I think, the way I see the world and everything in it. I see a big system, a giant web of life where everything and everyone is completely yet subtly connected somehow. My teacher Mark described this realization as getting your permaculture goggles, and lucky for me they are now permanently fastened to my face.