Alumni Spotlight: Rowan Cignoni

We sat down with Rowan Cignoni, an alumni of the Permaculture Design Certification in 2015, to hear where his Yestermorrow education has taken him three years later.

How much did you know about permaculture before Yestermorrow?

I first learned about the word permaculture from Toby Hemenway’s book Gaia’s Garden back in 2011 when I lived on the big island in Hawaii. I was working with youth on organic tropical farms, kind of a farm-based therapy model. We had a huge library collection of books and we integrated a lot of the Gaia’s Garden practices and principles into our work.

I moved to Vermont in 2013 to work for a wilderness therapy program in the Mad River Valley called True North. I discovered Yestermorrow was right in my backyard and knew I wanted to do study there eventually.

I took Urban Regeneration with Keith Morris, as well as Permaculture for Regional Planning with Andrew Faust, which piqued my interest. I’d studied environmental science and regional planning in college, and right away I knew I wanted to come back for the Permaculture Design Certification. Then I got some grant funding through VSAC to do it, which covered about half of my tuition for the entire Ecological Design Intensive.

What makes Yestermorrow distinct from other learning experiences you’ve had?

It’s important to me who I’m learning from, and I think the talent that comes to teach at Yestermorrow is one of the best things about it. Plus, the Mad River Valley is an amazing setting, the food is great, the people are friendly. And I really liked the physical classroom itself - having a design studio is pretty clutch, since Permaculture Design Certification is very hands-on design.

My course was happening at the same time as the Woodworking Certificate, so I also had this social aspect of getting to meet different people not in my class but who are doing something really cool.

What are you up to now, three years after your Permaculture Design Certification course?

I work full-time for Tesla Energy Operations. I focus on renewable photovoltaic energy, doing site visit surveys and installation for home battery backup systems.

In my spare time I volunteer as the main facilitator of​ Burlington Permaculture, a grassroots community organization founded by Mark Krawcyzk in 2007. The organization had become somewhat dormant while Mark pursued other projects so in late 2016, I started working him to bring it back into the mainstream.

Burlington Permaculture offers monthly educational workshops and presentations, all centered around the things that tie people to the land and their food. This fall and winter we’re focusing on the kitchen - things like fermenting vegetables, making kombucha, and baking sourdough. In the past, we’ve had indigenous seed savers teach about Abenaki heritage seed varieties. I taught wild mushroom forays, because that’s something I’m passionate about. The biggest course we’ve offered so far was Greenhouse Design with Chris Chaisson, which was a full weekend intensive.

We try to bring in aspiring educators who are student themselves and have something interesting to teach. We provide them with an opportunity to share that with the community while also making it affordable for people. We received a small grant from the New England Grassroots Environmental Fund, which we use to subsidize the cost of workshops for participants while still paying our instructors a fair wage for their time.

How has Yestermorrow prepared you to make an impact on climate change and sustainability?

The whole idea of permaculture is to go beyond sustainability to be regenerative. It changed my whole outlook on how we defined what it is to have a human impact. Permaculture is very solutions-focused.

At large in the global community, there’s this tendency to think that human impact is all bad, and we are just a blight on the planet and we’re killing the earth, which is all demonstrably true. But learning about permaculture showed me all the ways in which people can be a really good thing for the earth and for ourselves.

We have a huge impact, which means we have the ability to have a huge positive impact the same way we have the ability to have a negative impact. So that’s one of the things that stuck with me the most, that’s shaped my worldview since then and my approach to learning.

I’m in the process of applying to the Conway School right now for a Master of Science in Ecological Design. That had been in the back of my mind going into Yestermorrow but as I’ve started to work more in the field professionally, I’ve realized this desire to do a ten-month intensive graduate program.

Any advice for potential Yestermorrow students?

I would just say I hope people do it, because it’s awesome. It’s one of the things that I’ve done that has totally changed the direction of my life and my goals. It reoriented me into a position to really identify and pursue the things I’m passionate about.