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Wanakaset and Learnings from New College

Over the last two days we have had a session involving most of the active members of Wanakaset*, including a number of key members who have been less active of recent, to try and clear any past hard feelings and look to what our common objectives may be and how we will work together for Wanakaset, now that Pooyai Viboon has passed away

It was quite an excellent programme under guidance of a professional facilitator from outside, and I think we all felt that we succeeded in clearing the air, healing any past wounds, and seeing how we all have much in common, in that we all are working to practice Wanakaset and we all have a deep respect for the teaching of our common teacher, Pooyai Viboon. We also saw that we have differences in the way we communicate, in the roles we play, in what each of our Wanakaset forests looks like and how we dream it and our livelihood may look like in the future.

But as was put so succinctly, the forest is full of diversity and it is this diversity and the many different plants, animals, fungi, and so forth that give it its richness. Some might call a rubber plantation “Wanakaset” - but for us this is not at all the case. Unless there is a lot of diversity and relationships within the forest (which can include rubber trees) it is not “Wanakaset”. So our network, is and should be a reflection of the principles of diversity and complementary and symbiotic relationships that we also help to create in the forests we steward.

The time was also well spent to explore a bit more what “Wanakaset” meant for us all. One point that came up very clearly and strongly, is the point of “Self-Reliance.” The key aspect of this “Self-Reliance” is using your resources and skills/ knowledge to meet your needs. Resources being primarily the biodiversity that we seek to grow, cultivate and maintain (for those of us who have access to “commons”- such as community forests and shared bodies of water). And our needs being primarily our 4 basic needs of Food, Medicine, Clothing, and Shelter. Another key point of this “Self-Reliance” is to achieve a level of freedom. (The opposite of freedom coming from dependency.) When we are free from debt and have much of our needs available from our own land (and not very dependent upon money), we have much more freedom, and this means freedom and ability to reject that which is harmful, as well as just time to be, to enjoy, and to reflect. We see in many of our own cases, something external, such as the gas power plant that is now only about 1km from our home, will seek to enter an area. While for the environment and ecological well-being, clearly such industry is providing the neighbors no direct benefit and there is very likely to be harm, as they can offer jobs, investments, gifts for children, scholarship funds and what not, in a community where most are in debt (often severely), many have forgotten how to provide for themselves and earn from their land, and money is seen a the solution for most everything, words of wisdom from people like my wife, Yoke, have rather little power over someone with a large pocket book. So while we may have the freedom to think of the longterm effects of such a power plant and to reject it, for most others the lure of a bit of money now or a potential paid job is much more. I think this is seen in many places in the world where natural wealth and beauty may be sacrificed for short-term financial benefit that unfortunately too often leaves a deeper poverty in its wake

We also however brought to the point that “Self-Reliance” is not at all really “Self-Reliance” at all. If we consider every breath we take, this is an exchange of dependency

For without the plant life of this planet, we would not have the oxygen we need. The food we eat also comes from life. Our practice of “Wanakaset” is a much deeper relationship with life in its diversity. What is the big shift is from a dependency quite exclusively on “Money” often generated from just one activity, to providing much more of what we need and use through our own resources and skills. However when it comes to “Money,” we also recalled the teaching of Pooyai Viboon, who said “Do not seek money in what you do, but there is not a need to reject money when it comes to you.” What this means is that our foundation is to do that which provides what we want and need for ourselves and to do what we enjoy. This will give us a good level of self-reliance. However in most all cases we will find that we will end up with surpluses and develop skills that others want and need and are therefore likely to attract money. He also said quite clearly that a 25% level of self-sufficiency is enough to free one from debt and help give you a level of freedom (lack of dependency). This means that if you are to account for all that you would spend money on (if you only use money to meet all of your needs) and then can through your resources and skills reduce your expenses by 25%, providing for your needs, this is enough. This can mean many different things for different people. For most of us it means growing much of our own food to enjoy, which also being grown naturally and harvested freshly is more healthy and vital and thus a big dose of preventative medicine. But it can mean other choices, like to provide homeschooling rather than pay for a school, or to do home and car repairs, free oneself from (costly) addictions and much more. With this much more open principle, we also confirmed that “Wanakaset” can be practiced in an urban environment with little or no land.

It is clear though that with only about 25% of one’s needs met from one’s own skills and resources that we still need to provide for another 75%. Here again we are dependent or I would prefer to say “interdependent”. Our ideal next step (but this may happen concurrently) is to build relationships of exchange and sharing. As we all have surpluses, and we all have some different unique resources and skills, by exchange and sharing we can become as a community or network much more “Self-Reliant” and much more “Resilient.” This happens much in our network and the different communities involved. While it happens in many areas, it is most apparent in the sharing and exchange of seeds/ seedlings and knowledge. Still beyond this, we also see that having and developing relationships with people outside our network is valuable. In fact one of the easiest ways to help people change their way of thinking, without any proposal or apparent task of doing so, is through market related relationships. Just trying and tasting the rich flavors of a local wild vegetable, or experiencing the efficacy of some traditional remedies bringing a state of new health after years of only treatment of symptoms with modern medicine, can be a powerful awakening. The product consumed in such cases, links with a whole body of knowledge, with a way of cultivation, with a biodiversity that has been lost from the minds and hearts of most. So the act of selling what we know and practice, is also a subtle but powerful force of change. And in the current world where we still cannot escape money for many things we at least feel we need or want, like computers, motor vehicles, and airplane tickets, we can provide the money we need from a livelihood that supports the world we want to help to be. Thus we in a small way are helping to develop an alternative but co-existent economy. This while on the family enterprise or even community level is a small thing, can open a pathway to changing the whole system without confronting the system head on.

Wanakaset and New College, Oxford University

In our reflection process and considering what we might seek to see or achieve in 20 years, I recalled a story that I heard recently. This was all the more moving as hearing this story and then this period of reflection, allowed me to much more vividly recall my own past and life, which included a short period that was very rich in many ways at this very place with two of my best friends. The story is that New College**, which was new about 500 years ago has a beautiful dining hall built with huge oak beams. Not so long ago, someone caring for the location observed that these great and beautiful beams were being consumed by beetles. This much worried the custodians for they thought, “Where will we find such magnificent beams to replace these that now clearly will need to be replaced.” But then they checked and found that the College in fact had a plot of forest. They went to this forest and met the custodian of the forest, who replied “I was wondering when you would come, as it is well known that such oak beams will be taken by beetles in about 500 years, here are trees that were planted to replace them when the College was built.” This for me touched on what is the essence of sustainability and co-existence. Something that seems to me also to be a core tenet of what I would like to practice in “Wanakaset”. In Thai (mostly Buddhist) society it seems to be much less of a problem to talk about our own deaths. This may have been a bit more relevant with the recent passing of our teacher, Pooyai Viboon, who while departed from this world has left both a beautiful diverse forest which has produced and continues to produce seedlings that spread far and wide and seeds of knowledge in many who have learned from him, some coming to be wise teachers in themselves, but I feel it is a perspective which we can all hold, or at least which I ask of myself. “While I will not be on this Earth at that time may I plant seeds now while I am living that will benefit those who are here in 100 years, in 300, in 500 years.” It is very refreshing to know that at least someone was thinking is such as way 500 years ago. While it was not said, I think the forester who helped to care for these oak trees that have now replaced the dining hall beams of the dining commons of New College, must have planted oak seedlings to grow and be ready for when these beams may fail around the year 2500.

*Wanakaset while directly translating as “agro-forestry” or “forest farming” is a philosophy and practice developed by Pooyai Viboon Khemchalerm and his students of ecological self-reliance. Through growing and tending diverse forest/ forest-like farming systems and developing and sharing the knowledge/ skills of how to use plants for food, medicine, soil fertility, and many other daily needs, we can provide for our needs in balance with nature. (In fact greatly increasing the fertility/ ecological health of the areas we tend and harvest from). In Wanakaset- humans are not the ecological problem, but are a key force to a healthy ecosystem and planet. Wanakaset also refers to the home/ forest (now a learning center) of Pooyai Viboon in Sanam Chaikhet, Chachoengsao, Thailand.

**I heard this story from an interview with Rob Hopkins on Scott Mann’s “The Permaculture Podcast” Episode 1626

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