In this lively second conversation (find the first here) Clinton Callahan and I dive right in to swap notes on the dynamics of living creation processes. We cover creating from fear, chaos, and the groundless void as well as feelings, the unknown, the phoenix process, surfing the wave you are are, and much else.
On March 17, 2022, at 85 years of age, Christopher Alexander passed away peacefully in his home in West Sussex, England.
This post celebrates his life, and for me, personally, the sheer magnitude his work has had on the course of my life, including Making Permaculture Stronger as a project. If any of you have been touched by this project, then you have been indirectly impacted by Alexander’s life-long quest toward life, beauty and wholeness. Find out about who Alexander was here and here and here and here. Learn about Alexander’s direct influence on my (Dan Palmer’s) work, and on this very project here and here.
Thank you to Ann Medlock, a past client (and hence collaborator) of Alexander’s, for permission to share these photos and this poem here:
Alexander sculpts a building
out of air and wisdom
waving his hands
squinting his eyes
to see what only he and God can see
in this clearing on the bluff.
Listening to something
we cannot hear, he brings into being
a house so solid, silent and calm,
so embracing, consoling and inevitable,
that it draws in and restores
every open soul that finds its way here.
And many do.
Pilgrims who have heard,
who’ve seen a photograph,
who sense that here there is something
mysterious, rare, perhaps even inspired.
On a clear blue afternoon
we sit at a long table in the sun,
the house embracing this garden
and all of us who bask here
amid the calendulas and ferns.
Feasting on tabouli and cold birds,
we talk of poetry and paintings,
of terraces in Tuscany and homemade wine,
of our work, our passions, our quests.
We are friends, gathered here
by the grace that emanates from this holy place.
At Christmas, the clan assembles.
The tree, dressed in familiar ornaments,
touches the coffered ceiling
and sends the scent of balsam to mingle
with fire, roast and cakes.
Thick walls hold out the cold, the wind,
and every danger of the world we know.
Comets cut across the high windows
as we are drawn in and held fast, together,
blessed by the house that Alexander made,
while listening to God.
Three Examples of Directly Alexander-Inspired Design Processes
Here I share a selection of some of my favourite quotes from Alexander’s many books.
The Timeless Way of Building (1979)
You are alive when you are wholehearted, true to yourself, true to your own inner forces, and able to act freely according to the nature of the situations you are in.
[…] To be happy, and to be alive, in this sense, are almost the same. Of course, if you are alive, you are not always happy in the sense of feeling pleasant; experiences of joy are balanced by experiences of sorrow. But the experiences are all deeply felt; and above all, you are whole; and conscious of being real.
To be alive, in this sense, is not a matter of suppressing some forces or tendencies, at the expense of others; it is a state of being in which all forces which arise in you can find expression; you live in balance among the forces which arise in you; you are unique as the pattern of forces which arises is unique; you are at peace, since there are no disturbances created by underground forces which have no outlet, at one with yourself and your surroundings.
This state cannot be reached merely by inner work.
There is a myth, sometimes widespread, that you need do only inner work, in order to be alive like this; that you are entirely responsible for your problems; and that to cure yourself, you need only change yourself. This teaching has some value, since it is so easy to imagine that your problems are caused by “others.” But it is a one-sided and mistaken view which also maintains the arrogance of the belief that the individual is self-sufficient, and not dependent in any essential way on their surroundings.
The fact is, you are so far formed by your surroundings, that your state of harmony depends entirely on your harmony with your surroundings.
Some kinds of physical and social circumstances help you come to life. Others make it very difficult. (pp. 105-106, edited by me from third into second person voice)
This next quote changed my whole approach to design:
This [approach to design] is a differentiating process.
It views design as a sequence of acts of complexification; structure is injected into the whole by operating on the whole and crinkling it, not by adding little parts to one another. In the process of differentiation, the whole gives birth to its parts: the parts appear as folds in a cloth of three dimensional space which is gradually crinkled. The form of the whole, and the parts, come into being simultaneously.
The image of the differentiating process is the growth of an embryo.
It starts as a single cell. The cell grows into a ball of cells. Then, through a series of differentiations, each building on the last, the structure becomes more and more complex, until a finished human being is formed.
The first thing that happens is that this ball gets an inside, a middle layer, and an outside: the endoderm, mesoderm, and ectoderm, which will later turn into skeleton, flesh, and skin, respectively.
Then this ball of cells with three layers gets an axis. The axis is laid down in the endoderm, and will become the spine of the finished person.
Then this ball, with an axis, gets a head at one end.
Later, the secondary structures, eyes, limbs, develop in relation to the spinal axis and the head.
And so on. At every stage of development, new structure is laid down, on the basis of the structure which has been laid down so far. The process of development is, in essence, a sequence of operations, each one of which differentiates the structure which has been laid down by the previous operations.
In nature a thing is always born, and developed, as a whole.
A baby starts, from the first day of its conception, as a whole, and is a whole, as an embryo, every day until it is born. It is not a sequence of adding parts together, but a whole, which expands, crinkles, differentiates itself. (pp. 368-383)
Get rid of the ideas which come into your mind. Get rid of pictures you have seen in magazines, friends’ houses …. Insist on the pattern, and nothing else.
The pattern, and the real situation, together, will create the proper form, within your mind, without your trying to do it, if you will allow it to happen.
This is the power of the language, and the reason why the language is creative.
Your mind is a medium within which the creative spark that jumps between the pattern and the world can happen. You yourself are only the medium for this creative spark , not its originator.” (p. 397)
The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe: Book Two: The Process of Creating Life
Our current view of architecture rests on too little awareness of becoming as the most essential feature of the building process. Architects are too little concerned with the design of the world (its static structure), and not yet concerned enough with the design of the generative processes that create the world (its dynamic structure) (p. 4)
In our profession of architecture there is no conception, yet, of process itself as a budding, as a flowering, as an unpredictable, unquenchable unfolding through which the future grows from the present in a way that is dominated by the goodness of the moment (p. 12)
In a living system what is to be always grows out of what is, supports it, extends its structure smoothly and continuously, elaborates new form — sometimes startlingly new form — but without ever violating the structure which exists.
When this rule is violated, as it was, far too often, in 20th-century development, chaos emerges. A kind of cancer occurs. Harm is done. All in modern society succeeded, in the last century, in creating an ethos where where buildings, plans, objects…are judged only by themselves, and not by the extent to which they enhance and support the world. This means that nature has been damaged, because it is ignored and trampled upon. It means that ancient parts of towns and cities have been trampled, because the modernist view saw no need to respect them, to protect them.
But even more fundamental, it came about because the idea of creativity which became the norm assumed that it is creative to make things that are unrelated (sometimes disoriented and disconnected just in order to be new), and that this is valuable–where in fact it is merely stupid, and represents a misunderstanding, a deep misapprehension of how things are. Creativity comes about when we discover the new within a structure already latent within the present. It is our respect for what is that leads us to the most beautiful discoveries. In art as well as in architecture, our most wonderful creations come about, when we draw them out as extensions and enhancements of what exists already.
The denial of this point of view, is the chief way in which 20th-century development destroyed the surface of the earth (p. 136)
At each stage in its evolution the process — when a living one — always starts from the wholeness as it currently exists at that moment. The work is complete in some respects, in some respects incomplete. At the next moment, we take a new step — introducing one new bit of structure… into the whole. The new structure we introduce may be large, medium, or tiny… But the point is that at every stage of every life-creating process, the new bit of structure which is injected to transform and further differentiate the previously existing wholeness, will always extend, enhance, intensify the structure of the previous wholeness… (p. 216)
The enigma is that something new, unique, previously unseen — even innovative and astonishing — arises from the extent to which we are able to attend to what is there, and able to derive what is required from what is actually there… and that all this, then, will lead to astonishing surprises (p. 340)
In each place, a being slowly emerges from the mist (p. 340)
Intellect is too crude a net to catch the whole (p. 388)
The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe: Book Three: A Vision of a Living World
Life in nature, and in the humanly constructed world, is generated by a process of unfolding in which living structure grows in stepwise fashion from a current condition (the system of centers which exists) and takes on greater life by a series of structure-preserving transformations, or adaptations (p. 2)
I propose then, that the world should be created by adaptive processes which act as nature does, itself. They allow us to create a harmonious whole that embraces nature and creates buildings, streets, and towns, in a fashion which has the same deep structure as nature, and has the same deep effect on us as a result (p. 3)
What is the character of the kind of world where we experience emotional possession of the places we are in? It is a world in which the fine adaptation between people and their buildings and gardens and streets is so subtle, goes so deeply to the core of human experience, that the people who then live and work and play in that environment feel as if they belong there, as if it belongs to them, as if they are part of it, as if, like an old shoe, it is completely and utterly theirs (p. 43)
My aim for the last few decades has been, through the use of living process, to construct a situation in our world where a deep, profound belonging can exist and does exist. (p. 43)
Living process in a garden depends on people following their own hearts, allowing the call of their own hearts, dreams, feeling, to become actual in that place (p. 235)
In a section entitled positive space in gardens:
Then we build structures in these outdoor areas to differentiate them further, into smaller living centers, animated by the structures – steps, walls, parapets, railings, seats, embankments, bridges, slopes.. that we build in them. And then we allow natural life to rip loose, the plants, the grass, the trees, the bushes — and let these form still further centers, which then animate the positive space even further. That will happen almost of its own accord, if the initial positive space has been correctly made. This is the form the living process takes, in making a garden (p. 243)
If a dynamic process is followed, so that each time the next step follows existing things — preserves the structure, and creates and maintains relationships — we get a harmonious living community.
If, instead, a static master-plan-based approach is followed, and the 20 or 100 things are built according to the original drawing or plan, then they will exist, for the most part, without real functional relationships: the whole is unrelated in its internal elements; there has been no structure-preserving going on, step after step, and the whole remains dead (p. 336)
Here are a few photos from I mention in the episode to accompany a quote from Grabow, Stephen. Christopher Alexander: The Search for a New Paradigm in Architecture. Oriel Press, 1983. I haven’t yet written out here.
Now for a few youtube videos of Alexander.
PatternLanguage.com – The most developed and resource website I know of that Alexander was directly involved in
Christopher Alexander’s Neglected Challenge to Permaculture – the first time I publicly applied Alexander’s ideas to permaculture
Living Design Process – The emerging hub for one particular development of Alexander’s living process approach
Building Beauty – Alexander-Inspired education run by a bunch of fine folk who knew and worked alongside Alexander
Rob Hopkins interview with Alexander – well worth a read.
Please submit other relevant links in the comments below.
Some Closing Words
I wrote these lines maybe five or six years ago. They feel appropriate to share here now.
Where did living design process start for me?
Well, one image jumps to mind, so I’ll run with that.
It is January, 2014.
I’m standing next to my mother on lush, green grass.
We’re looking across her new vegetable garden.
After almost ten years as a professional permaculture design consultant, this job had been different.
The writings of Christopher Alexander had been on my radar for some years, with a small but significant influence on my design practice.
In particular, in a passage from The Timeless Way of Building, Alexander had helped me move away from seeing sound design as an effectively mechanical process of assembling elements into whole systems.
I was now seeing sound design as an organic process of unfolding parts from within the fabric of an already-existing whole system.
But on this project, I had somehow completed a multi-year, slow-motion jump from the former to the latter way of viewing and practicing design.
Indeed, during the process, I had entered and started applying ideas from Alexander’s later writings. After devouring his 2012 book Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth I dove into his four-volume, 2000-page masterwork The Nature of Order (2002).
Back to my mother and I, standing there. Surveying her freshly planted garden beds. She asked what I was up to.
For in my hands I held open Book Two of The Nature of Order. I had just a few minutes prior read Alexander making an intriguing claim.
He proposed that if one was to design and create using the living process he has been developing throughout his 60-year career, the result will be infused with fifteen specific properties.
Fifteen properties Alexander claims are characteristic, definitive even, of what he calls living structure. Living structure is another way of saying stuff that is as fitted to its context as almost anything we consider part of nature (a tree, for instance, or a jellyfish, wave, or rock).
The properties have names like strong centers, levels of scale, gradients, alternating repetition, and echoes. It is for another time and place to list or explain them all (go read his books!). The point here is simply that they exist, and that Alexander claims if you go about creating something in the way he advocates, it will have many if not all these properties in it.
The moment I read this I walked over to the garden, my mother joining me, curious to see what I up to.
“Let’s settle this right now, Christopher!” I was thinking.
I hadn’t been aware of the 15 properties during the process of designing and building the garden. As for my co-designers, mum and dad, they had barely even heard of Alexander.
And yet as process facilitator I had been keeping us as true as I knew to the living process Alexander says will reliably birth these fifteen properties into the world. Being true to the process means that we had been consciously engaging our whole body-minds in letting the parts of the garden emerge from within the context of the whole space as we laid it out and shaped it up.
It was a golden opportunity to empirically test his contention.
I remember my spine tingling as I looked from the list of properties on the open page to the garden and back again.
Every property was there.
I say it again.
Every property was there.
That moment is as good a moment as any to nominate as the moment that living process, and what we’re now calling living design process, really took root in my soul.
I thank you, Christopher Alexander for, in your beautiful writings, helping germinate the seed that lies inside us all.Dan Palmer
Endnote: For me, the creation and ongoing development of Living Design Process is the primary way I am keeping Alexander’s extraordinary legacy alive in the world. Learn more about it here and sign up for the first ever online course about it here.
In this episode Brianne Vaillancourt and I explore the the edge between Possibility Management and Permaculture. In particular we explore the potential to harness conscious feelings in our design work. Having started this conversation back in episode fifteen with Clinton Callahan, I feel joy to be going there again. Joy because the clarity of the distinctions I have learned in Possibility Management contexts are contributing so much to my work in design, holding space, and my life generally.
Learn more about Brianne (and sign up to her newsletter!) through her personal website.
Learn more about Clinton at his personal website.
Learn more about Anne-Chloé Destremau, who Brianne mentions, here.
Learn more about Possibility Management, Rage Club, Fear Club and Mage Training which are all mentioned. Something that wasn’t mentioned, but I was thinking of during the episode, is this site using the term Whole Permaculture to explore the Permaculture-Possibility Management bridge.
If you are interested in learning more about Possibility Management in an actual training experience, I recommend this online Expand the Box training run by my friend, colleague and guide Vera Franco.
Huge thanks to Ellen’ Schwindt for the musical intermission – below is a video of the larger composition I sample. Let me know if these things work for you and I’ll get them in more often!
In this episode in was my pleasure to get to know permaculture consultant Eliosa Lewis from New Climate Culture. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about Eloisa’s journey and work and look forward to having her back.
Here is a link to Kevin Bayuk of Project Drawdown that Eloisa speaks so highly of.
Here is the crypto token She talks about: https://icube.finance
I look forward to your comments (including questions for future conversations with Eloisa) and at the start I mention online events on Holistic Decision Making and Living Design Process you can find out more about here.
In this episode it is my great pleasure to welcome Carol Sanford back to explore her brand new book Indirect Work.
To support and celebrate the book’s launch, Carol has offered a giveaway offer exclusively for listeners of Making Permaculture Stronger. If you listen to and then share this episode on your website or any of your social media channels (such as sharing from the Making Permaculture Stronger facebook page), and then let me know about it, you go into the draw to access:
- A free copy of Indirect Work posted to your door
- A free ticket to a 90-minute Q&A on Indirect Work with Carol 10am PT, May 2, 2022 ($200 value)
- The link to download a pdf Self-Assessment for Regenerative Integrity. $100 value
There are also a bunch of different offers for buying different numbers of books here on Carol’s site.
Now, a little taste of what this book is all about. Carol explains that:
indirect work is building the capacity in people to consistently think at higher levels in order to create innovations for advancing specific contexts and streams of activity. This capacity allows us to become instruments for the regeneration and evolution of the living systems within which we are nested—to become effective change agents.Carol Sanford
Here are a few of my favourite passages in the book.
For example, every time we try to solve a problem, dividing it into its components to understand it better, seeking to figure out its causes in order to address them, we fall under the spell of classical mechanics. Every time we translate something into a replicable (and therefore scalable) procedure or recipe, we’ve stepped into a machine universe. This is so pervasive in Western and now global culture that it becomes invisible to us. It can be very difficult to get our minds to shake off this continually reinforced pattern in order to question our fundamental shared beliefs about how the universe works.
Earlier I said that this book was addressed to well-intentioned people who seek to make the world a better place through the instruments that are available to them, such as business, social activism, or creation of policies and institutions. I also said that most of these efforts are likely to be compromised or fail because they still operate from an old paradigm, within which the world is assembled from discrete pieces, each playing its part in a cosmic machine. Our machine-based metaphors are so pervasive that we hardly notice them: input, output, feedback, leverage, rewiring, reprogramming, metrics, ideal state, and on and on.
A living or regenerative paradigm has a very different character and uses correspondingly different metaphors. It starts with an image of the living, dynamic, and unfolding universe, in which each entity is endowed with the spark of life and an innate capacity for growth and evolution with regard to how it expresses itself. Working from this paradigm, one doesn’t attempt to push the world and its inhabitants to an ideal state—that would be coercive and life denying. Rather, one encourages and enables living beings to discover and express their innate potential as contributors to living communities. For those of us who truly want to transform the world, it is the regenerative paradigm that will enable us to do so.
This confronts us with an important question. Are the underlying beliefs, assumptions, patterns, and language that characterize my culture derived from a machine or a living systems paradigm? And if I want to cultivate a living systems culture, what must I do I to help with the shift? (note – Carol answers this question in our conversation!)
Consciousness is the necessary antidote to our overwhelming tendency to engage in automatic habits of thought and behavior. In its absence, these habits extend to the most general reaches of our collective understanding of the universe, itself, conceived of by Western Europeans in the time of the Renaissance as a giant clockwork. This peculiarity of regional imagination has now become the dominant paradigm of reality worldwide. As such, it has created a self-reinforcing loop in which the mechanistic universe is reflected in the conceptualization of our bodies and minds as biological machines and our institutions as social machines. Thus, we invent mechanistic metaphors and processes for educating and healing ourselves. In other words, we resort to conditioning, a default approach that is precisely the opposite of living free, self-determined human lives. And, in a mechanical feedback process, this conditioning reinforces the already prevalent tendency toward automatism.
But the process of accretion of information and action, no matter how comprehensive, will never on its own generate the shift in perspective that allows us to engage with a living whole. If anything, the tendency to aggregate and integrate only serves to reinforce the problems associated with fragmentation. This is because it derives its raw materials from the underlying practice of breaking things down into parts in order to understand them before attempting to reassemble them into something that makes sense.
I could see that nearly all of the world’s conflicts grew out of a binary or polarized view of reality: good/evil, right/left, male/female, white/black, profit/loss, owner/worker, wealth/poverty, future/past, energy/matter, ones/zeros. Business, politics, psychology, and even religion were all busy trying to shift things from one column to the other within a zero-sum universe where one person’s gain was inevitably another’s loss. Or, when they weren’t seeking to win the game, they were seeking to maintain its equilibrium through careful compromises and the balancing of powers—complementarity rather than polarity.
Faced with the ubiquity of this way of thinking, I realized that the way out of its dead ends had to do with the power of three-ness in a two-force world. In my flash of insight, genuine creativity came from not accepting the rules of win and lose. Rather, one had to see the dynamic tensions between opposing forces as the sources of evolutionary energy. This required stepping outside of the polarity in order to recognize its potential within a larger context. Stepping outside introduced a new, third force, one that was not bound by the terms of the conflict but could embrace both sides (or multiple sides, for that matter) as contributors to a new possibility.
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All of Carol’s books and how they fit together
In this episode I re-release an interview Millie Haughey recently did with me for her own podcast which is called Unplugged, Tapped In.
We explore the idea that most of us are trapped in the all-pervasive cage of mechanical worldview without even realising it and what becomes possible when the cage is seen and the door out is located. This will be a theme of some upcoming writing and solo episodes also.
In the intro I mention Millie’s interview with my dear friend and long-term Making Permaculture Stronger collaborator James Andrews.
During the chat I mention Carol Sanford a fair bit too.
In this episode I get to inquire into permaculture design process with Penny Livingston-Stark. Penny has been teaching internationally and working professionally in the land management, regenerative design, and permaculture development field for 25 years and has extensive experience in all phases of ecologically sound design and construction as well as the use of natural non-toxic building materials. She specializes in site planning and the design of resource-rich landscapes integrating, rainwater collection, edible and medicinal planting, spring development, pond and water systems, habitat development and watershed restoration for homes, co-housing communities, businesses, and diverse yield perennial farms. She as taught Herbal Medicine Making, Natural Building and Permaculture around the US as well as Bali, Indonesia, Peru, Germany, Mexico, France, Turkey, Portugal, Australia, Belize, Brazil, England and Costa Rica.
Oh and please tell me what you think of the new soundtrack too with mega-gratitude to Pip Heath for creating it!
In this episode I share a lovely dialogue with Bill Houghton, a long-term follower and supporter of Making Permaculture Stronger who recently reached out to connect. I love his opener: “I’m just intrigued as hell to know where you’re going man!” Enjoy, and know I am so appreciating the richness of your comments and messages as we navigate this journey together.
Hey all. I have been so energised from the spirit and content of comments on my last post/episode. Not to mention the private messages coming through. Then Jason reached out and helped me take it up a notch in this delightful dialogue. A dialogue sparked by how the last post/episode fed into some of his latest adventures and insights.
Enjoy, do let me know what this stirs up or brings alive inside of you (in the comments or a message through the contact form). Then catch you all in part two of the talking points series – can’t wait!
Also, I have a few questions for you to ponder. Deep down, which image best represents the lens you look through and hence the world you see? How sure are you about this?
ps. One little note of clarity is that I’ve personally been referring to mechanical and living worldviews (of which there are others, I just happen to be focusing on these two right now). Then I have been using the word paradigm to refer to the four levels of paradigm Carol Sanford has previously shared with us. I wanted to acknowledge that in this dialogue we use the words paradigms and worldviews more loosely where when mechanistic paradigm is spoken of this is exactly the same as the mechanistic worldview I’ve been talking about in recent and upcoming posts.
Making Permaculture Stronger’s core focus is regenerating permaculture design process together.
By this, I mean the deep and hard work of a) honing in on permaculture’s essential core, and b) sourcing and developing design process understandings from, and in alignment with, that place.
A necessary aspect of this work is developing new material (ideas, metaphors, diagrams, examples, practices etc). An equally necessary aspect is making space for this new material by finding and letting go of material that does not align or belong.
I believe this work is like an acupuncture point essential to the development of permaculture’s radical, needed and enormous potential. I also believe that this work, which is ours, as permaculturalists, to do, has barely begun.
This series of three blog posts and corresponding podcast episodes is a heart-felt invitation into this kind of work. Where I want to be clear for you, and in within myself, that I am not writing this stuff as any kind of expert or person-with-the-answers.
While I have a couple of tentative conclusions and perspectives, I mainly have a wealth of questions and a passionate commitment to create and hold spaces inside of which this kind of work can happen.
So, let the experiment begin.
This series was prompted by the appearance of an exciting new book into the literature of permaculture design. Its title is Building your Permaculture Property, its authors permaculture teachers and designers Rob Avis, Michelle Avis, and Takota Coen (who is also a commercial farmer).
The book lays out a clear and comprehensive approach to permaculture design process. A process the authors have developed over decades of combined practical experience, both personal and professional. I celebrate the existence of this book and all the hard-won learning that has gone into it.
Furthermore, I believe this book is a profound contribution to exactly the kind of work I have just been describing.1
It is also true that when I initially flipped through it, I felt some big feelings. Feelings that are informing and energising my effort to write these posts. Feelings that part of my current experiment involves me sharing openly here.
- I felt JOY in the sheer existence of this heart-felt, earnest attempt to advance the clarity and rigour of permaculture design. This work is so needed and such a gaping hole in permaculture that these three wonderful humans have done their very best to help fill. I am still feeling really happy about this as I am at the obvious extent of collaboration between the authors whose different strengths flow into and make the book so much better than any one of them could have made it.
- I felt ANGER to note a disconnect between the presentation of design process in the book and the design process developments and dialogues I have been involved in though Making Permaculture Stronger. From my perspective seemingly fertile opportunities for cross-pollination have not happened, where, to come to the point, the book includes much material that I have poured a lot of my life-force into arguing does not belong in, or do justice to, permaculture’s design process potential.2 While this anger has since mostly receded, it is still there also.
- I felt SAD to reflect on the resulting prognosis for permaculture’s evolution, if there are not established systems for pooling and collaboratively crash-testing and co-developing our mutual advances. If every design process book lays out its own take largely in isolation from a larger field of collaborative development.
- I felt AFRAID, considering my impression of the disconnect, how I might channel these feelings toward engaging with the authors about their work in a positive, constructive way. Afraid of how gaps I perceive between our perspectives might be bridged without bridges being burned! I feel this fear still.
- Finally, I felt a different kind of ANGER in seeing what seemed to me to be a profusion of superficial endorsements of the book (including my own!) that did not show any depth of engagement with its ideas. This sort of superficial blanket praise appears to be the norm in permaculture and I’m concerned what that means for permaculture’s capacity to be in the game of evolution. If it is all “your ideas are great and my ideas are great and we’re all on the same page, hoorah for permaculture” when, let’s face it, at least some of our ideas aren’t that great and, if you actually open the book, we are not all on the exact same page!!
Well this is a first for Making Permaculture Stronger, publicly sharing my feelings ahead of my thoughts.
Indeed, in the last few months I have had to do a lot of work on myself to get to the point where I am capable of bringing the energy I want to bring to this whole engagement. I feel like I am there, and I can now do this, so long as I keep a close eye on myself as I go along. Let us see how we go. Maybe you can keep a close eye on me also and enlighten me when I get off track.
To recap something I said above but now in relation to this specific book, I want to stress that:
- This is nothing to do with who is wrong and who is right
- This is everything to do with inviting the authors and anyone in the entire permaculture community into a different kind of dialogue where the aim is that all parties grow and develop
- This dialogue requires that we find civil and constructive ways of not brushing over but diving directly into our differences in design process understandings, in a way that lets us come through these into the realm of fresh insights and discoveries
Okay, enough pretext, feelings included. Let us dive into the first of three talking points arising for me as I engage with this wonderful contribution to permaculture’s evolution.
Talking Point One – Worldviews and Metaphors
While I am no expert in either worldviews or metaphors, together I find them such an interesting and important topic.
In particular, I am fascinated by the metaphors3 we use when trying to make permaculture design accessible. Initially to ourselves. Then to others.
Aside from the specific idea or process we use a particular metaphor to convey, we can zoom out and pay attention to the kinds or categories of metaphor we use.
These kinds or categories I find powerful windows into the worldview we literally view the world from and through. We can then ask whether the worldview we are working from is the best suited to the context of its application. Where, as soon as the worldview changes, the (downstream)4 metaphors all change too.
Before coming back to Building your Permaculture Property, I want to share a distinction between two of the various worldviews available to us.5 I will call these a mechanical or mechanistic worldview and a living worldview. Again, I am sharing my limited current understanding here, where I invite crash testing and clarification of everything I say.
In this worldview we view things as if they were mechanisms or machines. As makes sense when working with a clock, computer, or billiard table, this worldview has us break things down into their component parts, examine these parts in isolation, then reassemble them to build up an understanding of the whole.6
Our modern lives are throughly infused with machines that were built by assembling mass produced near-identical components. Most of us interface directly with hundreds (and indirectly with hundreds of thousands) of machines every day. As I understand it, the mechanistic worldview appropriate to understanding and working with these machines has become our default way of seeing almost everything.7
It is fascinating to me how a certain subset of objects (machines) have emerged from within the living processes of Earth (including those subprocesses we call human) and we have then separated out the machines to hold them up as an interpretive lens to understand the life forces that birthed them! Even though I’ve been aware of the mechanistic world view for a while, it is still deeply embedded within me, where I have observed a strong bias toward identifying the relevant parts within any situation and then assembling or reassembling them into more functional configurations.
In a living worldview, things are seen as alive and as ebbing and flowing organisms (rather than dead machines). Rather than treating wholes as if they were entities assembled from pre-existing parts, a living worldview sees such ‘parts’ as organs which have unfolded or emerged from pre-existing wholes, as the feet and lungs of a frog have emerged from the growth of the frog as a whole.
Here we cannot separate out the different parts, or organs, without killing the frog (or whatever it is).
Instead, the approach to understanding is immersing in the living complexity of the whole and gradually developing an affinity or kinship with it.
As I see it, such a living worldview has more affinity with any indigenous worldview or way of life than does the mechanistic worldview.
Which One is Right?
While I’m sure we can agree they are different, neither a mechanistic or living worldview is inherently right or wrong. They both have their place and their value.
If we are designing or building or operating or fixing a machine, a mechanistic worldview makes more sense than a living worldview.
If, by contrast, we are engaging with a plant, child, or ecology, a living worldview will likely serve us better than a mechanistic one.
It is a matter of evolving our capacity to pay attention to and then engage with the worldview most appropriate to the context in which we are working.8
By its nature, permaculture must engage with both worldviews. It deals with both living beings (such as trees) and with machines (such as bulldozers). The question is at what levels and in what situations is each worldview most appropriate?
I now want to suggest a hypothesis: The worldview we are operating from will unconsciously dictate the metaphors we choose to communicate our ideas.
If we are operating from a mechanistic worldview, our metaphors will be sourced from the world of machines.
If we are operating from a living worldview, our metaphors will be sourced from the world of life.
Again, I welcome any and all perspectives on this hypothesis.
The Metaphors in Building your Permaculture Property
Let us now consider the choice of metaphors in Building Your Permaculture Property, asking:
- Are they sourced from the world of machines (and hence, if the hypothesis holds, from a mechanistic worldview) or from the world of life (and hence a living worldview)?
- To what extent is that worldview the best suited to the context of its application?
I’ll mention first that in the book’s treatment of design process, I found a clear example of a metaphor sourced from the living world being used to shed light on the dynamics of healthy design process. In the author’s words:
Figure 2.3 shows how a watershed gathers individual drops of water into larger and larger channels starting with raindrops, then sheet flow, before going to rills, runnels, creeks, streams, and then the river, until eventually ending in a delta at the edge of a lake or ocean. The diagnosis and design steps function in the same way. In Step 2: Diagnose, our goal is to create a filestream (pun intended), with the function of converting the torrential downpour of information into appropriately compartmentalized physical or digital file folders. These file folders serve the same function as dams, swales, subsoiling, and gabions to channel and store information into appropriate steam tributaries that correspond to the eleven property resources.
Once these eleven tributaries begin filling with information, they will inevitably flow downstream and deposit themselves as design ideas that start with broad brushstrokes down to minute details, or what David Holmgren refers to as “design from patterns to details.” The way that I like to think about this analogy is that the river is diagnosis and the delta is design (more on design in the next chapter).
As soon as I started to mimic the dendritic branching pattern of a watershed to gather and distribute information, my obsession about learning everything there was to know about permaculture vanished. I stopped bingeing on information memorization. This was because I started to notice that the amount of information falling into the catchment of my mind, just like the amount of precipitation falling in a watershed, can exceed the capacity of the filestream or water channels. And when this happened, it was inevitable that the flow of data or rain would burst its banks and flood onto my physical or digital desktop as unfiled resources. In other words, information, no matter how good the quality, is only as good as your ability to put it to productive use.
That being said, you don’t want a drought of information either, because the speed and quality of your design insights are directly proportional to the quantity and quality of your data; poor information yields poor design. You don’t want torrential downpours of data; you want a slow and steady drizzle that keeps pace with the evolution of your filestream. You will also find that just as an older watershed that contains high-carbon soils and deep-rooted vegetation can handle more rain and even the occasional flash flood, a more established filestream can better slow, spread, and sink the occasional higher flows of information.
Building Your Permaculture Property, pages 83-84
This is a great example. The authors are using something from the living world (a watershed) to ‘shed’ light on an aspect of permaculture design process. Without getting into any further details,9 according to my earlier logic, this suggests that the authors are, at least in part, oriented toward, and operating from a living world view.
I say “at least in part,” given that the majority of additional metaphors illustrated in the book are mechanical in nature.
Whether one domino hitting another (p. 3), navigating through a field of landmines (p. 61), disarming bombs (p. 63), directing a small ball through a maze using pullies and dials (p. 88), operating a pinball machine (p. 132), or shooting birdshot, buckshot, or a slug through a shotgun or using a bazooka (p. 142), mechanical/machine metaphors are used repeatedly to explain core ideas and aspects of permaculture design process. The two most central metaphors used to illustrate the dynamics of permaculture design process as understood by the authors are a ball-in-the-maze machine and a pinball machine:
I want to note here that this tendency to pull in machine metaphors when sharing about permaculture design is in no way unique in the permaculture literature.10 I also want to emphasise that in my opinion, all these mechanical metaphors are used brilliantly to make their target points with clarity. Yet, if what I shared above is valid, the predominance of mechanical metaphors indicates that, despite clear indications of a living world view in the living metaphor I shared, the centre of gravity of the book is a mechanistic worldview and its associated mechanical metaphors.
As I emphasised earlier, there is nothing wrong with this worldview when used in its relevant context of application – namely the world of machines. However, it is my sense that the relevant context for permaculture design process as a whole is not the world of machines, but is the world of life. Or, at the very least, I feel it would be a worthwhile experiment to try and articulate permaculture design process from within a living worldview, using mostly if not entirely living metaphors.
Which brings me to a set of questions around my first talking point:
- I find it interesting that in permaculture we surprisingly often use machine examples to understand non-machine processes, don’t you?
- As permaculture designers, teachers and authors, how much attention are we paying to the metaphors (and similes, analogies etc) we use?
- How much attention ought we be paying to the metaphors we use?
- Do the metaphors we choose flow from and hence reveal the worldview we default to?
- What do you think about this?
- What do you feel about this?
- Does this stuff even matter?
- Is it possible to make the points we want to make in a permaculture design context using living metaphors?
- Is our audience so deeply steeped in the mechanistic worldview (and the techno-sphere it has enabled) that we must prioritise machine metaphors in order to stay accessible?
I’d be curious to hear how these questions land for you, and I am grateful to Rob, Takota and Michelle for inadvertently prompting me to ask them. Please talk to me in the comments below or by sending me a message.
We’ll look at another core pattern in the book, and raise an associated talking point, in Part Two.
Thanks to Takota Coen for reviewing a draft and making suggestions that helped me more accurately represent the book (which is not to say I’ve succeeded!), Jon Buttery and Beck Rafferty from the Making Permaculture Stronger Developmental Community for their suggestions and James Andrews for helping me clean up the overall energy of this piece.