Day one, permaculture design, and I’m lovin’ it. The photos below are all from around Lost Valley Education Center – they may not have to do with the surrounding text, but it’s an awfully pretty place, and I figure it offers a nice backdrop to all these words.
Currently, we’re all watching a series of PBS videos from the 1991 that feature Bill Mollison talking in his delightful Aussie accent about how easy it is to grow ridiculous amounts of food anywhere in the world, just by observing and listening to nature. We’ve just finished the tropical and desert sections, and are now about to enter into the cold climates. Mainers – stay tuned!
Today was an introduction to the basic ethics and principles of permaculture. While there’s much about permaculture that resonates for me and makes a great deal of sense, perhaps the biggest thing that strikes me is the very first principle espoused by permaculture, and the very first step in any permacultural design: observe and interact.
There is a quote we’ve seen twice today from Masanobu Fukuoka, Japanese farmer and philosopher, and author of the book One Straw Revolution: “Do nothing, observe everything. Timing is important”. Just look at this guy. Doesn’t he seem like he knows what’s up?
It seems to me that so much of our consumer based culture is about getting to the ends of things, rather than focusing in on the means, on getting there. How much time can we say we honestly spend just observing problems in our lives, before leaping out and trying to solve them? Our desire to “do” I think often undermines our ability to get things done, because our approaches often end up failing to take into account whole systems and the interrelationships of things.
This is a general statement to make, but particularly as it applies to gardens and growing food, our solution has been to “do”: to till, to fertilize, to control, to spray, to add. To maintain vast monocultures of corn, wheat, etc. requires massive amounts of inputs and labor – and the same goes for gardens in which plants are arranged without thought given to interrelationships of plants, and their functions. When permaculture asks us to observe, it asks us to take a breath, and to realize that, if we look at nature, we realize that it doesn’t require fertilizer to thrive; it doesn’t require labor, and it doesn’t require maintenance (at least on our end). If we are willing to observe the land we’re on: to see how the sun shifts over the days and seasons; where water concentrates; what is growing naturally; what insects and plants thrive; and how all these things relate, we suddenly have more tools, “laborers” (in the form of animals, insects, and microbial life), and information on our side than we could ever hope to replicate through machines and human hands alone.
At the end of the day, I think I like this first principle of permaculture, because it requires thought, attention, and perhaps most importantly, humility and patience. When we go into a site with the intention of starting a permaculture, we are not assuming that we can make the most of the land through new processes or through sheer power of intellect alone. We are going in hoping to learn from our surroundings how we can tweak or guide natural processes to produce a functioning ecosystem that includes humans as residents. We are going in always hoping to learn, to react, and to approach our world with an attitude of wonder and creativity. Sounds to me a lot like what we’re after in life anyway, no?
In a world that demands we constantly be moving forward, doing and having new things, slowing down and learning from what is already there is almost counter-intuitive – and that perhaps is another reason it makes so much sense to me. To slow down and observe the land around us is akin to slowing down, and really observing ourselves: realizing how our thoughts, instincts and desires have inherently become biased, and relearning how to assess things in the moment, without desire for particular ends. “Observe everything, do nothing. Timing is important.” Sounds straightforward enough – but it’s surprising how difficult this can be.
If you’re looking for a way to practice, I personally recommend yoga. Hiking and sitting is awfully nice too.
If you’d like to learn more about the 12 principles of permaculture, check out this site, based on David Holmgren’s work and research. More to come soon!