El Sobrante farm at the intersection of permaculture and diversity
By Lou Fancher
Forty years ago, at age 4, Maya Blow dressed in her Sunday-best outfit, balanced a tray of Dixie cups filled with natural perfume that she had made from crushed willow tree seeds and established herself as an entrepreneur.
“I’d go around to neighbors. I was so adorable, people would buy a cup. I was making herbal medicine from an early age,” recalls the El Sobrante herbalist, homeopath, organic farmer and educator.
As co-owner of Soul Flower Farm with her husband — engineer, permaculturist and beekeeper Yasir Cross — Blow’s expertise today extends into animal husbandry, eco-printing with plants, a handcrafted herbalism community-supported agriculture and leading the biodynamic farm’s classes, workshops, weekly community volunteer days, skill shares and youth programs. Four-month seasonal herbal apprenticeships, visiting school groups from kindergarten to university students and other features add to the macro picture, but the most unique feature zooms in on an often overlooked microcosm in permaculture.
“It’s important to say why we do what we do,” says Blow. “We created ROOTS (Reclaiming Origins Of Traditional Sustainability), a people-of-color-led and -taught permaculture design course. There’s not a lot of diversity when you take traditional permaculture courses. You might be the only person of color, and they often cost over $2,000. They are often intensives over two weeks, requiring you take time off from work. That excludes a lot of people.”
The ROOTS course instead meets on four consecutive weekends and is priced on a sliding scale from $900 to $1,200. Meals are served, and two-thirds of the participants receive scholarships or arrange work trades. In addition to earning an industry-standard Certificate of Permaculture Design, the course’s 100-hour curriculum includes vital, culturally relevant information on the indigenous origins of permaculture, traditional and holistic design concepts, continent-to-continent climate and ecosystems and more.
“We talk about water, soil agriculture, but also who in our lineage grew food and why they left the ancestral land. For a lot of people of color there is trauma: Did our ancestors leave because they were torn away from that culture?”
Colonialism, the slave industry and other factors may explain but never justify the loss of ancient practices and knowledge. To maintain a resilient, warrior-like spirit of empowerment and regeneration through sharing, rules developed by everyone on the first day establish trust.
Guest teachers are selected for diversity, arriving with well-rounded backgrounds and able to speak from experience about permaculture in mountains, deserts, the atmosphere, oceans and landscapes worldwide. Similarly, Soul Flower’s classes, like an Afrobotany course focused on plants used for food and medicine throughout the African diaspora, speak to birthright traditions.
“We may not have all the information given to our ancestors,” admits Blow. “We’re working through trauma and separation, the physiological action of plants on bodies, the tradition of sacred circles — it’s all levels of sharing.”
Blow says that especially in the last three years, a heightened political climate characterized by stress and fear causes people to come and simply exhale.
“They can put their hands in the soil, be with people smiling and laughing, be fed nutritious food and be cared for.”
Despite the specific onus to provide opportunities for socially disenfranchised communities, courses at Soul Flower include people of all genders, races, ethnicities, nationalities and generations.
“Our first ROOTS course, by the end, was a beautiful circle of people who most likely wouldn’t have connected if it wasn’t for them taking that class. Our goal is to have spaces where we dive deeply into teachings but also hear each other’s perspectives. We humanize each other and see more similarities than differences.”
Expanded perspective on humanity means the stories of everyone, regardless of skin color, economic background or other categorization, are welcome.
“We have to expand to make space for everyone,” says Blow, expressing a complex concept in all its simplicity.
This is why the summer-only ROOTS course regularly fills up when registration opens in December. Classes taught through hands-on learning, listening and observation “freeze time” for busy Bay Area residents, suggests Blow. Perhaps, but it’s most likely that ROOTS and the farm’s other programs do not stop but instead turn back time — tilling the legacy of ancestral permaculture, encouraging people of color to delve into painful or profound histories and cultivating informed stewards of the land with what Blow calls “bigger knowing.”
It all harks back for Blow through a steady progression: earning a history degree from Clark Atlanta University, a historically black college, and memories of hiking and harvesting plants while competing as an athlete in multiple sports at Lynbrook High School in San Jose. Before that, at an elementary school in Connecticut she attended that had been a castle and was surrounded by 200 acres, Blow remembers a teacher who took her out at nap time to walk the creeks and learn animal names and about their tracks.
She says she’ll never forget those earliest years — exploring the lush green forests of her suburban neighborhood, crushing seeds and flowers with her pestle and mortar, dressing up for business. It is a heritage, the wisdom of ancestors, and the land’s story to share with all who care to listen and learn.