Why Salmon Swim Upriver, And What it Can Teach Us

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    By Neal Hegarty

    In school they teach us about Entropy, or more specifically about the second law of thermodynamics, which states that the total entropy or disorder of any system always increases over time. In other words energy always flows down. This law is applicable to everything, no matter how big or small. Your life will end; all your carefully planned endeavours will crumble. Meticulously build a sand castle, come back a few days latter and only a pile of sand will remain. It will never get as complex as when you first built it. The sun will burn out, as will all the other stars in the universe, leaving a vast dark empty nothingness. We know this. In many ways, though not always spoken about it’s a defining ideology of our time. Cynics, atheists and nihilists are most aware of it and like to point it out at any opportunity, there’s no point to anything, we live in a cold indifferent universe and its all coming to an end, so just go along for the ride and don’t take things so seriously. I know this line well, because I was often the one delivering it. But it’s not just the existentialists that are influenced by this feeling. Religious folk across a wide spectrum of belief systems console themselves with the idea of life after death, or with the notion of attaining enlightenment in this life and so entering the realm of ‘deathlessness’. Capitalism, in my opinion the dominant religion of our time, is similarly influenced by awareness of the transience of life. This interpretation of reality seems to say, it’s a terrifying place this world, we are lost at sea and it’s everyman for himself, the only thing that can save you is to accumulate as much as you can, That’ll keep you safe, buy a good long life, and secure a future for your children. Yet no matter how much we buy, how much money we make, how high we build the walls and how much we save it never seems to leave us feeling safe or satisfied.

    I believe the reason for this lies, as ever, in the story we tell ourselves. The story of entropy and the second law of thermodynamics is only half the story. The famous physicists Schrodinder, said that life is negative entropy, or that to be alive is to challenge the downward flow of energy. Imagine the universe coming into existence from, as we are told a ‘singularity’. I like to picture a singularity as a seed – a little ball that contains all the energy and information necessary to create a universe. Where that seed came from is another question, but in one moment it bursts open. The second law says that all that energy should rush away, from its highly ordered state as a singularity, to complete disorder, infinite black space. But, so the story goes, that didn’t happen. Something caused energy to dance with energy, like little thermal currents in a river force water back up hill, the energy from this singularity hung around, got slowed down enough to form tiny bits of matter. Matter danced with matter and eventually we got stars. Giant collections of the simplest atoms formed, cooked more complex atoms and exploded. We come from these exploded stars. These giant pressure cookers, turning simple atoms into the complex ones that make up this world, challenging the second law with all their might. That’s syntropy, not entropy, matter becomes more complex, not less complex. Simply by existing and then dying stars create atoms, solar systems and life forms far greater than the sum of their parts. And its not just stars that do this. Everything that lives wants to play this game.

    Plants use photosynthesis to trap the suns energy and turn it into complex sugars. Sunlight flowing down hill, is caught, cycled and turned into more complex forms. And so if we look close enough, everything we see is, in its own way challenging the second law. This by extension implies that everything we see is alive; a realisation which in itself has profound implications for the way we see and interact with the world. Is a rock just a lump of inanimate material, or is it an extraordinarily complex arrangement of minerals, which, as they give home to and are broken down by lichens and mosses, themselves become recycled into soil, where they become the primary food source for plants. It’s the dance of life, as energy flows down hill, it dances and interacts with other forms of energy and creates new life, more complex life. Decay and creation are one and the same thing.

    And so, to the salmon. All the energy that flowed down hill, rainwater full of nutrients from the forest floors and dead dinosaurs, settles at the bottom of the ocean, never to be retrieved again. Until for some reason, spawning salmon, whose very existence depends on these nutrients, are compelled to undertake a collective suicide mission, to swim from the sea, back up stream, to lay their eggs on the river bed before they die. Anyone who has witnesses such an event will, no doubt have been struck by the sheer scale of the death. Salmon carcasses wash onto the riverbanks, the air fills with the smell of rotting flesh. Bears, birds and other creatures come out to feast, but there is always excess. It seems wasteful, unless you watch closely enough. The salmon’s bodies are the accumulation of millions of years of energy flowing in one direction. Their involuntary journey uphill is just another example of the dance of life. Their dead bodies break down and become food for and endless array of life forms, the salmons journey paves the way for new and more complex life forms to come into existence. We no doubt owe our existence in part to the salmon’s journey.

    But what does this mean for us and why am I talking about it? I think the salmon’s journey can show us something deeply profound about the meaning of existence. Being a consumer feels empty because it is empty. Everything that lives wants to challenge the second law by creating new possibilities. We are alive too, and so to the people who say that it is human nature to be greedy and destructive, I say it is the denial of our true nature, which is causing the horrors we see all around us. It is in your nature to create, not to consume. Your life does have a point, a purpose. If the salmon can retrieve all that energy and in doing so create all that life, imagine what you can do with your conscious mind, your opposable thumbs and your ability to cooperate with others. If you feel anxious or depressed with your comfortable life, don’t go to the doctor. You’re supposed to feel this way. It’s the feeling that comes from living a sterile fruitless existence. Just like the salmon, you are yearning to swim back upstream, to take your one precious life and to create something new and beautiful. Tell a story, write a play, build some soil, help a fellow human. Intuitively we all know the difference between fruitful activities and sterile ones. Rationally there is no reason for the salmon to swim uphill, just like there’s no reason why I should plant a tree the fruit of which I may never see. But my soul sings when I do it. What can the salmon teach us about life? Everything. Your life has a purpose, all life does. Find yours, you’ll know it by listening to your heart, not your head. You’ll know it because once you start to dance in harmony with the rest of the universe you’ll feel like your flowing not struggling. Go towards life and the universe will help you, go the other way and things will always be tough. Dance into the unknown, and like the salmon, don’t worry about seeing the results of your endeavours. We have no idea what’s coming next. Its time to let go of our need to know and control; consciousness is frightening, but its time to let go of that fear and become active co-creators and participants in the dance of life.


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    Your Curriculum

    Nicolas Hernandez Chiyal

    Born and raised in the town of Tzununa, which lies right below Atitlan Organics, Nicholas and Shad have worked since Day 1, helping to craft the this amazing landscape. Nichloas is a supreme ninja farmer with skills beyond explanation. Visitors are endlessly impressed with his resourcefulness, ingenuity, and sheer motivation. Nicholas now owns and operates Las Ensaladas de Atitlan Organics, a business that sells organic produce to over 50 restaurants, hotels, and stores around lake Atitlan.

    Neal Hegarty

    Neal is originally from Ireland. He grew up on a dairy farm and has been around animals all his life. He studied agriculture in Ireland and has worked as a permaculturist for the past 10 years. Neal was the Volunteer Manager at Atitlan Organics for 2 years before co-founding his own Permaculture-based enterprise, Abundant Edge Farm, in Tzununa. He brings a wealth of experience, enthusiasm, and energy into each Intro to Permaculture Course and Permaculture Design Certification Course and we’re happy to continue to collaborate with him!

    Rony Lec

    Rony is one of the world’s leading experts in permaculture and Mayan ancestral knowledge. Rony has spent the last 20 years teaching and implementing permaculture throughout Central, South and North America focusing on promoting food sovereignty and preserving biodiversity for the survival of Indigenous communities.

    Through his extensive work with Indigenous communities on traditional ecological knowledge, seed saving, native plants, local/global food movements, livelihood security, and the interaction between communities and the environment, he has made a key contribution to the empowerment of Indigenous people around the world. Rony is a co-founder of IMAP.

    Zach Loeks

    Hailing from Ottawa, Canada where he and his partner run the 50-acre Kula Permaculture Farm, Zach brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the course. He works as an educator, designer, consultant and farmer, with an emphasis on integrating diversity, conserving soil and maximizing farm ecosystem services while maintaining high productivity.

    Last year Zach published The Permaculture Market Garden, which explores ways that permaculture can be scaled up be a profitable whole-systems enterprise. Zach is a leading figure in permaculture, who brings a new and exciting vision of how it can be integrated into the wider community and marketplace.

    Ashley McDonnell

    Ashley’s work focuses on resurrecting our relationship to the natural world through the development of earth based skills that deepen our connection to place while increasing our sense of sovereignty and resilience. Devoted to the arts of permaculture, natural building, herbalism and birth work as her mediums, Ashley explores with humility the diverse modalities that support us in living in right relationship with the world around us. She views permaculture as a practice that not only creates healthy ecological communities but one that helps to reweave the very fabric of who we are as people. Her work is an offering to the future.

    Holly Mech

    Holly fell in love with yoga because of the sense of connection she felt every time she came to her mat. She began teaching yoga in Chicago in 2011. Her desire to deepen her teaching and personal practice led her to continue her yoga education in California, Bali, Australia and Guatemala. Holly now travels around the world teaching yoga and facilitating yoga teacher trainings. She enjoys helping new teachers sequence yoga classes and incorporate philosophy into their teachings. Her classes are creative and dynamic with an emphasis on making yoga accessible to everyone.

    Holly studied English at the University of Illinois at Chicago and frequently draws inspiration for her classes from literature and poetry. When she’s not on the yoga mat she enjoys exploring nature, singing, dancing and working with textiles.

    Laura Palmieri

    Laura ‘Lala’ Palmieri is a clinical herbalist, a biologist, plant and fungi lover and grower. She offers health consultations to balance body, mind and soul working with medicinal herbs and mushrooms. Her approach to health integrates the knowledge of many ancient traditions and teachers, fusing spirituality with nature, and science with alchemy through the transformation of the elements.

    Lala has spent her years in dialogue with Nature, which has fueled her passion to integrate scientific knowledge and the connection with all beings to help humanity. She integrates her practice with cooking, gardening, and exploring ecosystems. She teaches and facilitates herbal clinics and programs in permaculture, herbalism, botany, fermentation, and medicinal mushroom cultivation, with a regenerative earth care approach and techniques that are accessible to most. She and Sarah co-created the Envision and Cosmic Converge Herbal First Aid Clinics, other relief Clinics in Guatemala for the volcano eruption. You will find Lala crafting remedies for her diverse communities in Guatemala and Costa Rica, where she is actively creating a world with integrated healthcare.

    Sarah Wu

    Sarah is a clinical herbalist of 20 years, studying and practicing planetary eclectic, regenerative herbalism with a foundation in Wise Woman Reclaiming philosophies. Influenced by global traditions, Sarah focuses on local food-based healing and ethnobotanical traditions. She leads trainings and workshops in herbal medicine, Permaculture Design Courses, Therapeutic Deep Ecology, Social Permaculture, field-to-the-plate holistic nutrition, herbal first aid and Tarot. She is a passionate mentor and educator, who believes in the teacher’s role in unlocking the innate wisdom of the student. Sarah is the co-founder of the Village Witches project, and is a Co-Founder and Co-producer of Envision Festival.

    Don Fransisco Simon

    Don Fransisco knows the lands and waters of Tzununa deeper than most anyone alive. His intuitive handling of plants makes the whole system glow, and he is an avid duck enthusiast, maintaining the breeding flocks at Duck Willow, along with his own homestead flock. Aside from that, he oversees the establishment of the perennial agroforestry and aquaculture systems on Duck Willow Farms.

    David 'Brock' Barker

    Brock Barker was raised as an outdoorsman in the marshes and forests of south Louisiana, where he developed a passion for all things plants. After studying horticulture at university, Brock has worked in nurseries, landscaping outfits, and in the facilitation of a horticultural therapy program, and more. His primary ‘work’ for the last 12 years has been developing a 10 acre homestead which serves as personal garden of Eden and educational space for volunteers and workshops. Brock’s proficiency in areas such as mushroom cultivation/ foraging, fermentation, and botany, combined with his infectious enthusiasm make him an integral part of our team.

    Jeremy Dexter Fellows

    Jeremy has focused ten years of study, mentorship and implementation of permaculture design systems back home in Massachusetts. With many years of experience in botany and horticulture, he is fascinated by the world of plants. After working many years in Guatemala, Jeremy has dedicated his focus to land and water management systems that lend to ecological acceleration and social integration through food production. Jeremy now runs granja tzikin, works as a designer and consultant with Regenera and teaches in the Atitlan Organics teachers guild.

    Julia Forest

    Julia is an international yoga teacher, birth doula, women’s health advocate, and closet artist who is passionate about health, environmentalism and empowered birth. She is co-creator of the Sacred Birth Yoga & Doula Training, is founding director of Awakened Spirit Yoga and co-founder of the Wellkind Foundation, a non-profit that focuses on community empowerment and wellbeing through the lens of permaculture. She also created the Sacred Earth Yoga Training, the first yoga teacher training program that combines yoga, mindfulness, permaculture and leadership to transform lives and communities.

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    Your Curriculum

    Your curriculum for the Permaculture Design Certificate includes 20 short courses consumed over a period of 7 weeks, with a final design project to be finalised in the 8th week.

    Week 1: The Spirit of Permaculture

    Week 2: Design Methodologies

    Week 3: Water and Earthworks

    Week 4: Soil and Compost

    Week 5: Plant Power

    Week 6: Animals

    Week 7: Permaculture Niches

    Week 8: Final Design Project

    The Final Design Project Course Module becomes available after completing all of the Content for Week 1 and Week 2. The module serves as a guide for your final design project. We suggest that you work on this throughout the course. The 8th call is reserved for students to present their final design projects. Upon completion of the Final Design Project and all of the Course Content, a Permaculture Design Certificate is awarded.

    Shad Qudsi

    Shad Qudsi has over 13 years experience in organic and commercial gardening and farming. He is certified in Permaculture Design and has over 3 years experience in permaculture design consulting. After graduating from Johns Hopkins University with a double major in Applied Math and Psychology, Shad and his wife, Colleen, moved to Central America with only vague goals of farming at some point in the near future. In January of 2010, Shad and his wife bought and moved onto a very small farm located in the traditional Mayan village of Tzununa, which on the north shore of Lake Atitlan, in Guatemala. The farm developed into Atitlan Organics and now mainly focuses on greens and chickens, a large edible and useful plant nursery, a food forest, and training and education.  Shad is an enthusiastic teacher who truly believes in the work he is doing. Human resiliency cannot be erased from the landscape and now, it is coming back with a loving grace.