On the Relation between Designing and Implementing in Permaculture – Part 3

Permaculture was founded on the premise that humans must mimic natural systems if they are to survive (let alone thrive!).

Accepting this premise prompts a rather pressing question: How do we go about mimicking natural systems?

An obvious answer is by mimicking the processes nature uses to generate natural systems.1

This answer prompts another question: What are the key attributes of these processes?

Let us ask this question of a specific natural process example. Take the process starting with an acorn and heading toward a grand old oak tree.

This process is the gradual transformation of a whole-and-its-parts (the acorn with its shell, food store, embryonic plant, etc) toward a different whole-and-its-parts (the oak tree with its leaves, limbs, truck, roots etc).

The transformation happens in a particular sequence.

Once germination is triggered, for instance, the acorn’s first order of business is to organise an anchor.

Drawing down on its in-house larder, cells divide. A root tip emerges. Provisionally anchored and sending out feelers toward water, minerals, microbial allies, and such like, the sequence now starts making moves toward a photosynthetic income stream.

A new growing tip, this time heading up, differentiates itself within the dynamics of the fluidly transforming whole.

Leaves appear. Photosynthesis commences. The growing tip leaves a stem in its wake, which starts to thicken, and stiffen. Enter wood.

And so on.

Something along the lines of this amazing life-unfolding process is happening all around us. It is the formative key to all living tissue, all organism.2

Versions of this process are underway in your body, right now. A wound heals. Fingernails grow.

Even if we stop here, with this simple reflection on one of nature’s life-creation processes, we find discrepancy with how, in modern times, humans use something called “designing” to create form in the world.

This comes as no surprise for most modern design processes, which have no intention to create things that mimic nature.

Take modern architecture, where the intention often appears to be making buildings as unnatural and as unadapted to their surroundings as possible.

(Image source)

But what of permaculture, which from its inception has been, by definition, an approach to the design and creation of nature-mimicking systems?3

Does the average permaculture design process mimic natural process, in the sense of our acorn-moving-toward-oak tree example?

In at least one important respect, it does not.

After a review of nine different contemporary presentations of permaculture design process, the previous post concluded that:

A core idea integral to how permaculture design process is understood and communicated in the permaculture literature is that of completing a design to some satisfactory degree of detail and only then implementing it.

But the acorn does not create a detailed design of the oak tree and only then implement this design.

It literally figures the details out as it goes along. The only place a detailed design appears is in the actual unfolding reality of the tree itself.

The acorn contains something we might say is akin to a goal, in the form of genetically encoded rules constraining or directing the kind and sequence of transformations that take place. This ‘goal’ contains parameters that are different from the parameters encoded in the DNA of a eucalyptus seed, or an elephant embryo.

But there is no specific layout. No detailed design. No blueprint. No master plan. There is no picture to aim toward.

Let’s consult an actual acorn on this:

Us – Listen acorn, why don’t you draw up a detailed sketch of the oak tree you’d like to become first – then you can use the sketch as a guide to move toward

Acorn – What are you nuts? How on earth can I tell how many leaves, limbs, etc etc I’m going to end up with? Why do I even care? Why would I waste my energy creating some imaginary future state that will never, ever correspond to where I actually end up? All I need do is take one step at a time, basing each decision based on what makes sense for the reality of where I am at in that moment (which includes my DNA, current environmental influences, my current size and shape and stage etc etc)

Us – No seriously, you should listen to us. After decades of practice, we’re convinced you’re much better to make mistakes on paper first, so you get things right on the ground, and, err, up in the air

Acorn – Again, this is crazy talk. My ancestors have been researching this stuff for well over 300,000 years and I can tell you with certainty that the surest way to make mistakes with this creating natural systems stuff is to try and plan all the details out in advance. Just relax, figure out what comes next, make a move, plan the next step, then repeat. Seriously, take a leaf out of nature’s book, why don’t you?

In the next post, I’ll dip my toe into the work of a human designer-creator who has done just that.


  1. Obvious in that surely the best way to mimic anything is by mimicking the processes that have proven themselves capable of generating that thing.
  2. Organism is a noun of action denoting an ongoing process of organising. To organise is to make into an organ, as in a part of a greater whole.
  3. See for instance the definitions shared at the start of this previous post of ours

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