PICA and the Natural World: Reflections from Six Years Down the Road

Participation in the Program in Community and Agroecology (PICA) has been one of the most formative experiences of my adult life. Allow me to tell a short story about where PICA once was so I can explain where it has taken me today.   I began my engagement with PICA as a member of the first residential community during the 2002-2003 academic year.  For me, this was a time of great internal reflection and a major turning point in my life.  Prior to moving into the PICA student housing in the Village, I had lived both on campus in the Porter College dorms and off campus on the near east side of Santa Cruz.  Though the community I experienced in the UCSC Porter college dorms was very fulfilling, the community structure was impermanent by design.  I believe that our most direct connection with the natural world is through the food that we eat, and the impermanence of our dorm community was nowhere more apparent than in the nature of our relationship with food.  Our residential dining halls were designed to feed us more as guests rather than as permanent residents. Though I appreciated the convenience of the meals at our residential dining hall, this convenience came with the cost of a great schism between my daily life and the living world that supplied me with food.

It was the desire to find greater connection with food and independence that motivated me to seek off campus housing in my third year at UCSC.  During my time off campus, I lived with three good friends but the sense of community I had felt while living in campus housing was still lacking.  It seemed that neither living situation could meet both my need for community and my need for independence and food autonomy.  I came to PICA with the desire for an effective means of living in community like I had found in the dorms that would also allow the cultivation of independence and a sustainable relationship with the natural world.  PICA was an outstanding environment to develop this lifestyle.

In that first year of the PICA program, the Village housing complex was just beginning to coalesce and we had only begun to negotiate our position with the university.  What just two years before had been the largely undeveloped and wild remains of a limestone quarry in a seasonal creek bed quickly transformed into student housing.  The work of PICA participants and intrepid Village groundskeeper Jose Sanchez had not yet established the beautiful landscaping that now flourishes around the Village homes. We began building the Foundational Roots garden when I moved in to PICA but our first productive gardens were located in the C and E quads of the Village housing units. Those asphalt-warmed gardens grew the most amazing Alliums!  The wild qualities of our home were very apparent.  During the two years I lived in the village, I shared the quarry with bobcat, coyote, many raptor species including golden eagles, and of course, the ubiquitous ground squirrels.  Stories from the earliest Village residents rumored a once active mountain lion den in the sinkhole near the kitchen.  A few friends even reported sighting mountain lions passing through the trees at the quarry’s edge during the dusk hours.

Perhaps the most valuable experience I took away from PICA was having the opportunity to work with others to build community that was limited only by our imaginations.  We built community organization as we saw fit and adapted these structures along a consensus process. Though there was much debate (as I believe there should be) over how to best live cooperatively, food and participation were always central to our common vision. We adapted a cooperative food purchasing program to supplement our local food production.  This system, along with our consensus decision-making process, is still active and happily functioning in my own household today.  Having the support of the PICA program allowed me to see and experience the role that I could play in community.  I was shown that I had always had the tools that I needed to affect real change in the world.  In order to make that change, I only needed the support of community.

My connection to the natural world first found itself in the dappled forest under-story light casting shadows across my face as my mother carried my infant form, through the forests near our home.  This is one of my first memories.  The ever-ascending spirals of oaks, redwood spires and the rich smell of rain in the humus framed the great agricultural swath of my home of nascence within the southern reaches of California’s Sonoma Valley.  I felt a kinship with those wild places, and an influence from them as real as that of my parents in the shaping of my youth.  As I grew into my life, the social and ecological realities of my home became more apparent through the years.  Agriculture is the support of our lives. My years in PICA and as a student of agroecology have taught me that there is no process more salient to the continued health of natural systems and human society than the acts of agriculture and resource harvesting that we undertake as a species.  It is my desire to pursue an ever-deepening understanding of the ecology of the natural systems upon which the human food production system is based.  Many of the tools I have found to aid me in this process I was empowered to develop through my experience in PICA.

Thanks for reading,


Alija Mujic hails from the town of Sonoma, California where he grew up amongst the grapevines, hiking and camping in California’s coastal ranges.  He attended UCSC from 1999 until 2004, earning his BA in Environmental Studies (Agroecology) and BS in Computer Science.  In his fourth year at UCSC, Alija became involved with PICA as a way of strengthening his ties to a sense of community while also deepening his understanding of the natural world.  During the following two years, Alija would participate in PICA as a member of the first residential community and later served as the first PICA Garden coordinator.

After graduating, Alija found gainful employment with Ecological Concerns Inc. dba Central Coast Wilds (CCW), an ecological restoration and consulting firm in Santa Cruz, California.  At CCW, Alija served as restoration project manager and seed collections manager, gaining a deep understanding of California native landscapes.  His interests in restoration ecology and food have led Alija to the study of forest mushrooms.  Currently, he is a mycology PhD student in the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology at Oregon State University. When not in the field collecting fungal specimens, Alija can be found working with a small community on an acre of land at the edge of town.  This land is shared with a cadre of chickens, large gardens and a small fruit orchard.  This year is a landmark for Alija as he has, for the first time, grown enough potatoes and garlic to last him throughout the year.


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