Regressing Forward

The digital journal of Cyrus Sutton


Quail Springs Permaculture Course- Part 1


Highway 33 snaked through crenulations on the Nordhoff Ridge. It was autumn and golden aspen dotted the evergreen landscape of the Sespe Wilderness.

 ”This place could easily pass for a canyon in the Eastern Sierra,” I said to Lex who was riding shotgun. 

I met Lex on a Reef photo shoot in Tahiti a few months back. She’s a stylist and fashion blogger. A few weeks earlier we’d caught up at a coffee shop in LA and talked about our complicated relationship with social media. I suggested she come take a Permaculture Course with me to clear her head.

Permaculture was founded in the 70’s by Australians Bill Mollison and Dave Holmgren. Permaculture is one of those simple concepts that’s hard to explain simply. It’s basically a design science seeking to solve our current environmental and social problems by working with nature instead of against it. I was skeptical at first, the word “Permaculture” sounded esoteric and cultish. Last spring however I had the opportunity to interview Geoff Lawton in Australia, he trained under co-founder Mollison for decades and has become the foremost Permaculture teacher in the world. I was amazed by his ability to articulate an alternative view of the future which side-stepped much of the grim environmental prophecies cautioned by scientists and the mainstream media. 

Permaculture is taught in two-week intensives called PDC’s (Permaculture Design Courses). I’d promised myself long ago I’d take one, and after three years of signing up and canceling, I was finally on my way.


We got our first glimpse of the dry Cuyama Valley nestled in a rain shadow behind Santa Barbara’s coastal mountain range. After a windy decent we were surrounded by tractor-groomed dirt. The landscape was brittle. Sparse patches of green offered the only evidence that the fields were still in production.  A nearby Pistachio farm served as the rendezvous point for our group of drop-outs, documentarians, preppers, self-help gurus, retirees and students. Together we drove single file through a series of locked gates to a high desert valley. Beyond a kink in the canyon, the white canvas yurts of “Quail Springs Learning Oasis” were visible amongst the chaparral. 


Lex (right) with Quail Springs matriarch Jan Smith

Filtering into the compound past a humble sunken garden, we congregated into a large circle of chairs. The compact sectors of gardens and communal spaces were a stark contrast to the endless dirt fields we first encountered on our drove. Everything seemed to have an immediate purpose that could be enjoyed with the hands. There were probably ten to fifteen people who worked here full time mixing with the forty of us who had come to learn how to live closer to the land.