I’ve mentioned it a few times in some of my previous posts, but part of the direction that I would like to take this blog in is to share my passion for permaculture, to dig deeply in its principles and to explore its multitudes of possibilities. So, I am intentionally interspersing permaculture-focused entries with natural crafting and landscape design; indeed as it is the means for me to tie those passions together.
As in any discipline, a nice place to start is at the beginning. Permaculture was founded in Australia in the 1970’s by Bill Mollison, a senior lecturer of Environmental Psychology at the University of Tasmania, and graduate student David Holmgren. Over the course of their study, the two witnessed profound environmental degradation as a result of industrial food production. Mollison and Holmgren took it upon themselves to design a new method of agriculture that would not only not harm the environment, but actually revive it. Thus permaculture, or a plan for a “permanent-agriculture”, was born.
During the past 40 or so years, permaculture has gained popularity as a ethics-based approach to systems management, supported by a series of design guidelines, or principles. David Holmgren described 12 such principles for sustainability (and beyond!) in his 2002 work Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. I am going to go through each of these in more depth as they apply to coming entries, but have included Holmgren’s synopsis below.
As these 12 principles were written with the intent to redesign agrosystems, it is very easy to first experiment with them in a garden setting. A garden is a contained space, easy to manipulate by an individual or small group of people. System improvements are made with relative ease, and results quick to present themselves.
The next logical steps would then be to apply each principle on the greater scale of the homestead, the industrial farm, and so on. But upon closer inspection, it becomes evident that permaculture principles are meant to be taken beyond their most obvious context; to paint a broader picture. They can just as readily be utilized by a corporate business or a community volunteer organization. They are canon for the model of universal sustainability, more than simply useful ideas for garden design.
The first pillar of permaculture, and the principle that I would like to touch on today is to observe and interact with nature. I love this principle! If any system is to be improved upon, or at the very least impartially altered, a thorough understanding of its existing elements and their relationships must first be established. This principle holds true for agricultural, social, economic, or quite literally any kind of system.
It is worth noting that permaculture principle one is paired with the “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” adage, indicating that this critical first step is a measure of individual perspective (and rightly so). But the way that that I understand it is that observation and interaction further speak to comprehension of evidence-based data, and so this principle also lies in the objective realm of scientific analysis.
Observation entails more than simply looking at something. It calls upon all the five senses and then some; perception of space, passage of time, interconnectedness, and good old fashioned intuition. For example, consider a grassland ecosystem like the one pictured above. If you were actually present in this environment, what would you observe? Perhaps you would first notice the vibrant palate of greens and purples in the landscape against a stark blue sky. Then you might become aware of the sounds of the wind blowing through the tall stalks of grass, dotted with the chirps of crickets and birds. You could feel the faint heat of the sun against your face. Can you perceive a sense of smallness in the vast open field? What would this environment look like in autumn? In the winter? Why are there so many lupins growing here? What kind of nutrients do they give and take from the soil? Do they provide forage for beneficial insects? Are they choking out other plant species? How do other ecosystems like the mountains or the foothills relate to this one?
You can see how very quickly a small swath of field becomes a complex macrocosm of data with just a few moments of contemplation. One could even make their observations of the grassland more tangible by performing a couple of modest experiments. You needn’t have an entire laboratory at your fingertips; taking readings and measurements with readily available tools like rulers, thermometers, simple clinometers, pH strips, etc. can still provide a wealth of useful information. Can you think of some tools you might use to collect data in an economic setting? A cultural one?
Interaction is the other half of this principle. Exploration of the human relationship to an examined system begins with a direct connection. Introduce yourself. Press the buttons. Walk the path. In essence, use the system as it was meant to be used and so develop an awareness of it’s strengths, deficiencies and nuances . Another example: It wouldn’t make sense for you redesign the wheel if you had never picked one up and rolled it down a hill, or in a more modern context, build an ergonomic chair if you never sat in one. Remember, autonomously acquired knowledge is frequently the best retained knowledge.
Taken together, observation and interaction are the most basic techniques we can use to interpret the details of that which surrounds us. So basic in fact, that they are often skipped over or forgotten. It is a skill all in itself to resist the temptation to dive right into a project, and instead first pause to simply absorb.
One of the questions I hear most often from first-time gardeners is “where do I start?”. I find myself time and time again coming back to observance. Pour yourself a cup of tea (or a glass of your favorite wine, as you please) and find a comfortable spot to sit in your yard. Call out your partner, your kids, your pets and spend an hour (or more!) in that space. What is going to happen in your garden day-to-day? Who will use it? Who will tend it? What do you want from it? What does it need from you? Where is the sun the strongest? The shade the deepest? Where does water collect? What looks dried-out and tired? What kinds of soil do you have? Which are your favorite plants? Why? Those brief moments of exchange and reflection will provide you with most everything you need to get on your way.