Sebastian Bertsch


Sebastian found ELI after craving a change from his tech job in the South Bay. After finding some unexpected lessons within the social design side of ELI’s permaculture based training, he now uses his penchant for unraveling the complexities of technical systems in his work creating maps for water system design and install, rainwater catchment and surface water management in the North Bay.

What were you doing before starting ELI and what brought you to the program?

I was in the South Bay working in tech, for a radar terrain mapping company doing hardware design and manufacturing, getting less interested and not knowing how my work was benefitting anything. I was taking a class at the community college, and some students said Toby Hemenway was giving a talk. I’d been exposed to permaculture and had been reading about it for a while…and during Toby’s talk he mentioned ELI and talked about it [from the lens of] how do you turn permaculture from a hobby into something that’s a lifestyle, and a means of making a living? Over the course of his talk, [ELI] was making more sense and the tuition seemed more legit; here’s an actual set of stairs you can take to get where you need to go.

I wanted a lifestyle focused in Earth Care. I needed more help than I can get out of books. I saw the program as offering technical instruction, thinking it was a way for me to leverage my skills to actually do some good.

What were some of the most valuable aspects of the program?

The program was not what I expected, but it was exactly what I needed. It turned out it was more the social and personal design side [that I needed]. Skills for self-design were a hold up for me and ended up being the most critical component of program. I’d been a manager, I knew how to push projects through, but how to facilitate rather than manage, rather than dictate; that was new. It was one of Erik [Ohlsen’s] strengths- not just his technical expertise but his group facilitation experience.

All the instructors had a huge wealth of knowledge. Michelle brought a scale and brilliance of design thinking that I’d never experienced before. All the guest speakers had their certain areas of expertise. Toby Hemenway was this wise man who introduced the concept that an interconnected system emerges from contact points between different elements. It’s not just enough to look at individual issues, you need to understand connections. That was a big thing [for me]; thinking about how all these things relate; an unexpected, but great, outcome.

What would you share with someone considering the ELI program?

The school is new, but it draws from great instructors, who have collectively worked on high quality permaculture education for a long time, and have decades of experience and education. There is a massive wealth of passion that ELI is leveraging to push the quality and intensity of education in the field.

I see what was learned at ELI as good engineering; how to design solutions. I wasn’t expecting such an easy transition; wasn’t expecting to get a profession right out of program. I saw it as a massive and terrifying leap to get to this idea of having my day’s work be Earth Care, but with Erik’s coaching and the [ELI] community, it was just a few stretched steps.

ELI addresses a need in education that I observed through my education and from teaching robotics at high schools; that we need to tie disciplines together. We need wider scopes and bigger pictures; sure we need specialists, but also generalists who help those experts work together to solve the issues between elements.

What are you doing now, and what excites you about it?

During ELI, I got wind from another student that Sonoma County had been totally mapped by LIDAR, a form of remote imaging technology similar to radar, and I saw a way to make myself useful to the community- coming from the tech world I had been thinking, how are my skills useful to the community here [in the North Bay] who are working on the right kind of projects? So I started playing with making one foot interval topographical maps and slope analysis renderings. These maps help show patterns of water flow and erosion. I made some maps, Erik got excited, and I also had CAD experience, so that led to getting work with Permaculture Artisans [an ecological landscape design company]. Now I’m almost fully responsible for creating maps for water system design and install, rainwater catchment and surface water management.

I’m also involved in starting a new business, and ELI gave us instruction on creating legal business structures with a group; making a tight team. How does one design a business that has the structural benefits of hierarchy but the ethics and protection of a community? I wouldn’t have considered that possible without the breadth of instruction at ELI.