Sustainable Vocations for Youth, 2012

In this output packet I describe the events that took place from July 23rd to August 12th 2012 during an environmental education course at Quail Springs Permaculture.  I acted as a photographer and as a youth mentor during the 3 week course.  We lived on site, camping in tents under the stars.  International educators came to teach us about rainwater harvesting and composting toilets.  The students received a permaculture design certification upon completion.  I truly had an amazing experience and grew as an individual, counselor and photographer during my time at Quail Springs.

I:  Introduction: Arriving on the Land

II: Education in Community

III: My Role as Photographer & Mentor

IV: Slideshow

V: Horizontal Leadership

VI: Conclusion: Photography as an Exchange of Trust

VII: Appendix

I:  Introduction: Arriving on the Land

It is perhaps a manifestation of the imagination activation work, which I have pursued with Teryl Chapel, that I became a part of this fantastic course at Quail Springs.  I receive a plethora of emails describing permaculture related activities, because I actively research the best educational opportunities to pursue.  I usually take a quick glance, and move on.  However, when I read the description of the course offered at Quail Springs, I could feel a connection and a strong pull in my heart to participate in any way that I could.  I quickly wrote an email describing my desire to be a part of the “Sustainable Vocations for Youth” program.  At first I was told that the staff for the course was full, and, “thanks for my interest.”  I continued planning my life when one day, 2 weeks before the start of the course, I received an email from Daniel Hensel expressing his interest in having me document the course!  I was ecstatic, and I proceeded to rapidly rearrange all of the subsequent plans that I had made for the summer in order to be present.  I acted as photographer and youth mentor for the 2012 Sustainable Vocations for Youth program at Quail Springs Permaculture from July 23rd to August 12th.

I was unaware at the time of my own adventurous approach that it was an invitation that had brought me here.  I did not have time to thoroughly read all of the important documents that were sent to me, since I had rearranged my life so rapidly to be able to make it to the course.  I suppose I could have, but I felt rushed.  I jotted down the directions on a piece of paper, and headed down the 101 south from the bay area.  Riding on El Camino Real, old bell poles, Spanish missions, rolling golden hills with live oak, and the contrast between the hot inner valleys and the coastal foggy areas mark the path.  I arrived at the gate on the side of a desolate highway 33 at the heat of the afternoon in the high desert east of Santa Barbara.  As I had not read the instructions, I found myself standing at a locked gate under the hot sun.  After meeting the people at the Pistachio Companydown the road, filling a gallon of water, and attempting to make calls from my computer using wifi outside a closed restaurant; I decided to wait in front of the locked gate.  Luckily, the carrot farmer with whom Quail Springs shares a road was leaving his property shortly thereafter, and I was allowed access deeper into the canyons.

I pulled up at dusk, and on time for a gratitude circle before dinner with people who would soon become friends.  I had help setting up my tent across the valley in the second canyon by Josh, a student of psychology at CSU Northridge, and a fellow mentor for the course.  After a half day of relaxation, the property began to fill with people.  I soon found out that I was part of a team of mentors, most of whom were already very fond of each other.  We delegated how to pick up vans and students in Santa Barbara.  I charged my camera batteries, and made sure that the memory cards were clear.  I also brought my extra lenses, camera cleaning materials, and tripod.  We drank maté on the windy drive through the hills, with old growth orange groves and avocado orchards lining highway 150.  Daniel Hensel had researched my web page and viewed my Argentina photo gallerybefore he contacted me.  He went by ‘Dani,’ a common nickname for Daniel in Spanish speaking countries, which was also my nickname during my time in Argentina.  He was ‘holding north’ for the course, and as an Argentine himself, he told me that he felt good about having a photographer who knew how to pour and share maté.

A day after meeting all of the residents, staff and mentors, I found myself documenting a circle of 27, 14-24 year old students at a parking lot in Santa Barbara.    After a long hot drive back to Quail Springs, they set up their tents and we ate our first dinner on the land together, preparing for the whirlwind of a course that was about to commence.  During the busy first day, “Warren’s back,” could be heard spoken between people.  I had no clue who Warren was at that time.  He arrived and taught a classic, “Evidence for the Need to Act,” lecture.  Afterward he led a beautiful gratitude circle before dinner, gracefully sharing his presence of a gentle patriarch.

It was not until the 3rd or 4th day on the land that I actually arrived.  I remember it vividly:  The crescent moon is waxing.  You trust the space enough to walk without a flashlight now.  You can see the Milky Way vividly in the clear night sky.  You walk past sage that glows turquoise against the white sand, and junipers that seem to have silver luster to their greens and purples.  Suddenly you’re not walking anymore, because you are in awe of the world around you.  Your feet are resting gently on the soft sand, your vision is crystal clear for miles of mountainous zigzagging black horizon lines, worries from the outer world are at ease, and you arrive at Quail Springs.  From this point forward, I had no more thoughts of being an outsider to a group that has been sharing experiences together on this land for years.

II: Education in Community

There was the “CLP” crew from Riverside, the young business partners from Oakland, a student from Kenya, and many students from the greater Santa Barbara and Los Angeles area.  I would observe red ants scurrying around a hole in the ground from above, and then I would walk the opposite direction from where I was coming only a minute ago.  Simultaneously, a friend would be walking back from where they had already come, as we laughed at each other for our unintentional folly.  Course work included, but was not limited to: hiking the watershed, pattern literacy, design processes and methodology, element analysis, reading the night sky, compost systems, water in the landscape, earthworks, natural building, greywater systems, bread making, and aquaponics.  In fact, the course was so busy, that we intentionally allowed ourselves to rapidly adapt with the energy of the course using what’s called the, “50/50 Principle.”

As stated on the course schedule, “We work on the 50/50 principle.  We plan and outline 100% of the program and then surrender to its own unique flows and synchronicity.  This usually means that the schedule often changes to meet the nuance of the group, nature, and other influences.  This keeps the program dynamic and fluid.”  Another invisible structure in place to facilitate the course was the “8 Shields Model” of community organization.  I represented the west, which in the 8 shields model symbolizes: autumn, sunset, harvest (sharing fruits of labor), storytelling, and reflection. The west also symbolizes the embodiment of the archetype of the Magician, which I understand to represent the following:  “Magician energy drives us to obtain hidden knowledge. But contrary to the popular adage about professional magicians—that they never reveal their tricks—a man truly animated by the mature Magician archetype is eager to turn around and share what he has learned with others. He desires to elevate the serious and earnest seeker to his level.” 

The days would start with drumming from the ridge above the camping canyon by Wyatt, from Virginia.  After the drumming, Jen, who works for the Peace Corps in Senegal, would ring the bell to signal breakfast was ready.  I would walk across the canyon, the still slightly dark midnight powder blue skies to the west juxtaposed with the bright yellow fresh morning sunlight coming over the ridge to the east.  Dark brown cowboy coffee, wash face, brush teeth, say ‘hi’ and give hugs to over 30 different people, fresh hot food, conversations about how to change certain aspects of society and a morning circle to go over the day.  There were two morning sessions of learning that were followed by lunch and a siesta.  After all of that, from 3:30pm to 7:00pm (depending on the 50/50 principle) there were two more afternoon sessions of learning, followed by dinner and then a night session.  Each day was filled with another topic from a Permaculture Design Certification course, and/or a guest speaker who was presenting about specified knowledge.  I was exhausted from the heat, the activity, and the attempts to document all of the learning going on throughout each day.  I was honestly ready for bed at around 9 o’clock every night.

Brad Lancaster came for a few days as a guest instructor.  He has a tall and muscular stature, and I asked him once, “if he trained in martial arts?”  He has written textbooks on Rainwater Harvesting and helped to change Arizona’s greywater laws via civil disobedience.  He is virtually a ‘Permaculture Superstar,’ and here I was taking pictures of him laughing with students and giving them hands-on instruction on how to build their own composting toilet and greywater system.  Another water guru, Art Ludwig, came to teach about the natural history of water in landscapes amongst other things.  He spoke gently and chose his words intentionally, in order to share knowledge with the most impact.  The grapevine tells you that Art is the one who bargained with the state of California to desist from legal action against Quail Springs for building code violations.  (*See Appendix for more on Buildings)

III: My Role as Photographer & Mentor

People asked me if, “I had even taken any pictures or not?” around the middle of the second week.  To which I would reply that, “I already have over 500,” with a smile.  The embodiment of the Magician archetype meant that I was not intrusive as a photographer.  I asked everyone in the circle for permission to photograph him or her, and said that; “if anyone felt uncomfortable they could come speak with me later.”  I had two separate cameras with 3 lenses.  I marked areas in the classroom with tape, so that I would know where to put my tripod, in order to get a consistent shot.  I chose not to document during gratitude circles, to respect people’s space.  I would zoom in from a seat in the back, crouch down below in front, run to the side in order to be between the subject and the sun, and rush to exchange lenses when the right moment presented itself.

I can close my eyes and think of Ryah, whose hair I shaved on one side; or Fortino, who manages the garden at UC Riverside.  I can see the kitchen crew, Gabby and Jacob, playing guitar together on the hammock with baby turkeys wandering freely beneath.  I can see the other mentors around me all sharing lunch during a meeting:  “I am unsure of the efficacy of telling a younger person, ‘I am your mentor,’ before actually building a foundation of trust with that person.”  I tried to phrase my thoughts softly to the others.  I never for a second doubted the intentions of the other mentors, and I witnessed them perform miracles with the students.  I mentioned this out of my own insecurity with the word, and my own need to have a foundation of trust with another person before I will consider them a mentor figure.  I know inside that we are all allies on a journey to transform society together.

V: Horizontal Leadership

It was one morning around this midway point of the course that we had a 6-hour long Trust Circle.  The circle was called because there was an incident between campers that had broken the trust that we all held sacred as an isolated community.  I felt the facilitation of this circle by the mentors present was a direct application of the 8 Shields model.  As the ‘talking rock’ was passed around, we modeled for the students how to actively listen to others while they shared.  We showed by example how it’s ok to open up to a big group of people, as we were part of the same circle and we were sharing our own issues surrounding trust as well.  People shared about issues concerning: family, gangs, suicide, anger, sexual molestation, and more.  The acknowledgement of the emotions alive in the group after a week of being away from normal society was a responsible way of allowing people’s voices to be heard.  The trust circle provided a safe space for people to encounter their emotions with a support group present.

The much-anticipated ‘free day’ had finally arrived.  My boyfriend, Taylor, and I went on a big hike.  We continued past the spring into the dried up river bed, swerving left and right with the ancient flow of the absent water, following the largest artery all the way up to it’s source.  The top had a mystical quality to it, and I was reminded how Warren had shared with us stories about the Chumash.  He said that perhaps one had to, “ask permission to be on the land.”  Thinking how this river used to flow year-round and be a sacred source of life for indigenous peoples, I did ask permission to be atop this desertified watershed in my own way.  The path became narrower and the sandy cliffs on each side became taller.  Approaching the ridgeline where the air was thin, the narrow canyon opened up.  We could see scraggly mineral-rich landforms on the bottom of the next valley to the east, and what appeared to be rain clouds approaching from the west.

One of my favorite stories from the Designer’s Manual to share with others is how the Pueblo natives of the southwest had their ceremonial rain dance in order to seed the clouds.  They would stomp around high atop the plateaus of the Arizona desert, and the dust would merge with the clouds approaching from the gulf coast.  It was these particles that they had created through ceremonial dance that ultimately allowed for the rain to fall.  I felt as though Taylor and I were adding particulate matter to the clouds with the dust from our footsteps high up on the ridgeline.  The timing for us to be at the high point was auspicious as there were dark rain clouds approaching in the peak of summer!  Upon hiking back to the main campus, where the students were enjoying showers and music during their time off, it began to sprinkle, and you could hear thunder in the east.  It was a beautiful occasion that brought joy to everyone.  I got some amazing photographs of the plants in the garden right after this refreshing summer rain!

Three full days of the course were in Santa Barbara proper.  The mentors split up tasks: driving vans, getting food, taking the extra students, etc.  It was at this time, after a visit to ‘The Farmer and the Cook’ in Ojai, that I left my Canon G9 camera on top of Alex’ car.  Alex is a fellow mentor who studies architecture and is integrating permaculture ethics with the structure of Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo.  As we took a sweeping right turn following the vans, my camera rolled off of the car.   A minute or so down the road my ‘spider sense’ went off and I exclaimed, “I left my camera on the roof!”  We pulled over to see if it was still up there, but it wasn’t.  I told the others to, “keep driving, it’s a lost cause,” but the 4 other people in the car decided that we were going back to ‘The Farmer and The Cook’ to verify regardless of my opinion.  At the same stop sign where we took the sweeping right, we made a U-turn this time coming from the opposite direction.  My friend Gabby reached out of her car door at the end of the slow turn to grab the camera case from the road.  I exposed the broken and smashed up contents of the pouch to everyone else as we continued on the road to the Isle Viste Food Co-Op.  I was in a weird mood for the rest of the day, as the feeling of ‘letting myself down’ is one of my least favorite.

During this time, while I was dealing with my own emotions, the other people involved in the course were each learning exactly what they needed to as well.  Students would have conflicts between each other, or not feel comfortable in a wealthy Montecito household, or need to ask for extra support in understanding a concept.  Mentors would find difficulty with overcoming certain blockages in themselves and/or in students.  Volunteers would struggle to balance play and responsibility.  Each of us was allowed to be our own leader, and also able to rely on a group of leaders around us for support.  Being able to make my own mistakes as a mentor, and witness students make their own mistakes from their relative position, was an invaluable exercise in practicing horizontal leadership.

VI: Conclusion: Photography as an Exchange of Trust

Back at Quail Springs after 3 huge days around Santa Barbara, including: Fairview Gardens, Spirit Pine, the Goleta Libraryand a pool party; it was time for the students to create their own designs.  They set out applying new knowledge and creativity to posters representing the house that they had plastered during natural building day.  On the final day, they presented beautiful designs and were awarded Permaculture Design Certifications.  I can still imagine the warmth of community around me, the flies buzzing inside my ears, iced tea, guest lectures and shooting stars.  The time I spent at Quail Springs and the experiences that I shared with the people there have left an impression on my heart and soul.  It is refortifying and validating to witness an array of people who are passionate about a common cause.

This course was an opportunity for me to confront my own discomfort with photographing people.  I reflected on how the only photographs of people on my website are of close friends and family.  Nor do I see value in enlarging photographs of strangers.  I had a huge self-realization through experiences shared with the community at Sustainable Vocations. I realized that my creative process with photography is an exchange of trust.  I became aware of the fact that I needed to ask another’s trust in order to feel comfortable documenting them.  Also, being responsible for representing individuals, a community and a course to the world-wide-web, I became acutely aware of how I was entrusted with representing others to the whole entire world.  I am grateful for the opportunity to have learned about my own creative process through trust at Quail Springs.

It is perhaps impossible to capture all of the activity, decision making, friendship building, learning, and shared experience that occur during 3 weeks of living in a close-knit community.  I documented with compassion and creative energy, and I feel as though my work qualifies to bring the viewer some of the feeling that I have described in this paper.  Quail Springs has really captured the essence of the spirit that I experienced as a camper at Hidden Villa.  They create a safe space for others to be away from ‘normal society,’ and to live peacefully with the land.  Without TV, advertisements, cars, radio, skyscrapers or chain link fences, the students have time to settle their minds, and allow the stress of the city to dissipate.  Working together and building trust as a community, the students got first-hand experience with the notion that any relative stranger can become an ally, so long as you view the other as a person who is worthy of your respect and trust.

Warren would comment on how it breaks his heart to know that we all have to, “put our hearts in a turtle shell,” as we go out into the city.  However, I think that for these students, their hearts will be only partially enclosed from now on.  From shared experience living in community, their defenses were lowered and seen objectively for what they really are.  This is a foundational knowledge of self, and it is a perspective that I developed during my time living in community as a young camper myself.  There is no real space in popular culture to learn from and share with the community in which we are living.  To come to a place where we respect each person in the community, and allow each person’s voice to be heard, is a drastic juxtaposition to normal society.  I now view the students, staff, residents and mentors of Sustainable Vocations as friends, teachers, spiritual role models and colleagues.

VII: Appendix:

*People Care:  Quail Springs prides itself on being especially attuned to ‘people care.’  This is amazing to experience in today’s work environment.  It is the only place that I have been a part of that has been 100% transparent about money and payments.  They were always very accomodating of everyone’s needs, and allowed for people to take time to take care of themselves.  This is one of the fundamental pillars of permaculture in action!


*It feels as though Warren, Brad, Art and the older generation are the Grandfathers of permaculture.  I am of the young adults, already acting as leaders and mentors in our own way, and the students are quickly rising to meet the challenges that this complex world presents.

*It is worth noting that the idea of being invited to Quail Springs had been mentioned by others as a necessary means for arriving.  Hearing others talk about this made me reflect on the fact that I had been invited also.

*The carrot farmer that owns the property along the access road from the highway to Quail Springs produces organic carrots for Bunny Luv brand, which are sold at Whole Foods.  He pumps, 1,200 gallons/minute and has had to dig 4 wells.  He constantly plows his fields and the churned topsoil is further depleted by wind and water erosion each time he does so.  He will soon have to sell the depleted land, because there will be no more topsoil nor water to grow food there.  In addition, the rate at which he is pumping water is causing the well to seal itself with a mineral layer so that it will not be able to replenish the ground water.  These are the current standards of ‘organic,’ and this is what you are currently paying for at Whole Foods.  Does he use pesticides?  No.  Does he do anything else that would fit inline with the mentality of the green movement?  No.  This is unnacceptable and shameful, and it contributes to ‘greenwashing’ and a feeling of jadedness with progressives.  What carrots ought I buy?  Only Farmer’s Market direct?  How do I know what that farms practices are?

*I cannot emphasize enough how special of an experience this was!  I had an amazing time, I learned a huge amount, and met so many beautiful people.  It was truly a pleasure to be a part of this course!  For me, this was exactly where I want to be as a photographer, permaculture designer, educator and person.  This course satisfied my soul, my person, my profession and my self.



None of the buildings at Quail Springs meet California (CA) state building code.  There is a sign as you walk up to the common space that reads, “This is a Research Site: Enter at Your Own Risk.”  Quail Springs has been involved in challenging CA building code in order to make it legal to have a non-toxic household, and also to legalize the responsible usage of greywater.  As a way of practicing what they preach, the buildings meet standards of how permaculturalists feel it is responsible to live, rather than what current laws decree.  Because of this, the composting toilets in the food forest can be taken down within 24 hours, the mandatory amount of notice that the county needs to provide before coming to the land for inspections.  Although they have defied state law and lived in integrity with their ethics for the time being, it was shared that the main commons building, in which we had class and meals prepared every day, will soon be torn down.


*Ecology of Leadership:

I stayed back for the educational hike up the watershed, because of foot pain leftover from my travels in Colorado and Washington.  I also pre-planned time to be present for my boyfriend, Taylor’s, birthday in Los Angeles for 2 days during the course.  I simply could not rearrange all of my prior responsibilities to make myself 100% present for the course.  Taylor’s birthday was July 30th, and we had to pack and move out of his house by July 31st.  After that day, we both drove back to Quail Springs together, and he was an integral part of the second half of the course.  It feels great to apply the leadership lessons that I learned in the ‘Ecology of Leadership.’  I voiced my needs, set aside my feelings of self-doubt, and I was met with open arms, love and respect.  It also felt great to treat myself as an adult and to be treated as an adult in return.



*Nikon D80 Digital Camera, 50mm and 28-200mm lenses

*Canon G9 Digital Camera (R.I.P)

*iMovie editing software

*Flickr RSS feed: no media on Mahara! Ability to post more photos!

*Apple MacBook Pro

*Youtube, embedded media


*Fairview Gardens, Goleta, Santa Barbara

*Goleta Library

*Allen & Associates

*Art Ludwig

*Brad Lancaster, Harvesting Rainwater,

*8 Shields Institute,

*CLP, Child Leader Project,

*Isle Vista Food Co-Op

*Quail Springs Permaculture

*Sustainable Vocations for Youth


About danblake222

*MSc "Integrative Ecosocial Design" with Gaia University *BA "Ethnography & Photography" with Minor in Spanish Linguistics from UCSC *Artist in Residence at Omega Institute *Handyman, House Painter, Writer, Photographer, Permaculture Designer, Gardener *Photography portfolio at

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