Living Design Process at Limestone Road – a Video Letter

Guest post by John Carruthers

Living Design Process (LDP) and Holistic Decision Making (HDM) thinker Dan Palmer asked me last month to put together a short video letter on my recent experience with LDP and HDM. Dan has mentored me and our planning since my partner and I took stewardship 18 months ago of a 70-acre former grazing property in Central Victoria.

In what follows I share some reflections to support the points made in the videos.


Time: it is the energetic tide of humanity. It is much more than that. There is value in its passing; and information in waiting.

Time becomes one of the most useful scales when we look at change or the processes that endeavour to shift it. But calibrating the scale becomes especially important depending on what’s being levered.

For politics it could be as short as a week (as the old aphorism goes), in the cautious science of climate change, a decade can be irrefutably significant (as the IPCC suggests), for a botanist or forester it spans multiple decades (as David Suzuki intones), while for a geologist (as my father was), what is sensible to discern the planet’s natural systems lengthens to hundreds of thousands of years or longer.


But closer to the action, what of our own aspirations to live with the land or make a more positive impact on it? Be it a permaculture-inspired plan for a rural block or city plot, or a whole-of-farm plan for a larger regenerative agriculture enterprise? Over what timescale is it helpful to evaluate what we do?

In pondering this I arrived at three answers. Sensible and nakedly pragmatic. Firstly, we need at least a decade or two, and probably a generation. At that time-scale, significant decisions can be aligned with climate and deeper social currents (like a whole-of-property revegetation program).

The next is at least 3-5 years; over which inter-seasonal variation can flatten and deeper personal capabilities demonstrated. A livestock program, for example.

And at the narrowest, over 12-18 months; because each season has been seen at least once, some early behaviours in us are revealed, and it sustains motivation (which is not unimportant). A shelterbelt preparation, for example.

Because it is that dance between behaviour and place that in so many ways embodies the success or otherwise of permaculture and sustainable agriculture.


So, the working title for this post might have been “Habit: the behaviours we repeat”.

But after barely 18 months, humility suggests that it was enough to ask: “What has been achieved?” and “What lessons stand out so far?”

The answers are, respectively: “Not much, AND a great deal”, and “Quite a few, upon reflection”. And that is the narrative arc of the nine lessons and four locations visited on the property over the video’s 13 minutes.

Eighteen months is long enough to have listened, done some, reflected and readjusted. And that cycle is critical. The popularised rule is that it takes 21 days to form a habit; but the better science projects that achievement as long as 6-months. And make no mistake, that dance of design-and-do on the land IS about habit. That sequence of oh-so-human evaluations and actions that result in design interventions and implementations. Everywhere.


“We cross the river by feeling the stones,” revolutionary Deng Xiaoping observed in the context of nation building. But his metaphor is also axiomatic: we can’t appreciate the decision we are currently making, if we are already rushing beyond it to the next one. Hasten slowly we should.

For example, as I explain in the video part one, in terms of design decision making, learning to identify our biases. Biases can be seen as the product of those set of unconscious filters that enable us to quickly absorb and process information every day. The set of heuristics that (helpfully) allow us to learn to flow through busy traffic, and (unhelpfully) to racially stereotype.

Without those same shortcuts, to paraphrase the neuroscience, none of us would get out the front door in the morning. In my own case, as I reveal in the video, those shortcuts create a bias for action (particularly after period of analysis) – call it conditional patience. We all have our own profile and without self awareness, it can nudge us onto a path we repeat unhelpfully. Knowing that, can help us mitigate for it.

Stoicism isn’t for all of us, but it contains a useful idea when we’re prosecuting something important. “I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies,” Aristotle said. “For the hardest victory is over self.” The better we know ourselves, the better decision makers we can become. We become less likely, to extend my example, to become crunched into artificially time-critical decisions of our own framing.


Antidotes to (unwanted) decision shortcuts abound, but as I reveal in video two, when it comes to the land, at the early stages, banging stakes in the ground, and painstakingly building models of the land out of beer cartons and steel soap pads can have a remarkable way of slowing down us – and our thinking. In both cases, long enough for kinaesthetics to work their magic, and let our brain’s slower, more thoughtful pre-frontal cortex get hold of the steering wheel (usually with much better results).

And that is immensely encouraging. Because the nub of Dan’s approach to design process seems to be to give “every decision its rightful breathing room.”

Asking the right questions is really what Dan’s living design process seems to be all about. Finding that sweet spot between intentional action and thoughtful reflection.

It is on that cusp of the dance floor of think-and-do that Dan mixes his passionate encouragement, incisive questions and courage to accept the consequences. And perhaps that is the bigger hope for LDP: that we can all become more empowered to find that state of productive liberation.


Bjorneru, M., Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World, Princeton University Press, NJ, USA, 2018

Farmon, J., Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting from the Ancient to the Instant World, Yale University Press, New haven, 2018

Harari, Y. N., Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harper Collins, New York, 2015

Rock, D., Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, Harper Collins, New York, 2009

Suzuki, D., and Grady,, W., Tree: A Life Story, Greystone Books, Vancouver, 2007

John Carruthers


Note from Dan: Wow thanks so much for the work of putting these together John! It has been such a pleasure working with you, and for reader/viewer interest here are a few more videos from earlier in this same process:

John Carruthers on the experience of using Holistic Decision Making
Dan Palmer on reading landscape @ John and Rosie’s place
John Carruthers on the magical moment of moving from what is to what might be!

Striking at the Root: A Life in Permaculture Design

…guest post by Jason Gerhardt…

I came to Permaculture through a combination of hope and desperation. After growing up with street violence, early death, and urban entropy as central themes of my life, I hoped the rest of life wasn’t going to be such a fleeting affair. With that single point in mind, I became desperate for something that would equip me to alter the trajectory of human culture.

I revisit my original motivation for Permaculture often. For me, it’s not about food production or watershed repair or any of the other “things” I do. It’s about developing a fundamentally different way of being alive. The only way we will develop greater permanence in human culture is by profoundly changing who we are. We know well that we can’t apply the same ways of being to our lives and magically manifest a different result. Paradigm change, then, is our only hope for a better life. How do we make the shift? Fortunately, Permaculture Design provides a pathway.

The Ground

I discovered Permaculture while training at a Zen monastery. Nineteen years ago and then a teenager fresh off the city streets, I found myself surrounded by mountains, rivers, and wildlife in Vermont and immersed in a traditional Vietnamese Buddhist culture at that. Everything was unfamiliar, yet I adapted. I threw myself into snowdrifts, trekked in the forest by moonlight, meditated beside beaver ponds, and foraged mushrooms and fiddleheads with monks. My experiences during these years confirmed the plasticity of my existing paradigm. It also exposed me, through a book on gardening, to the philosophy and methodology of Permaculture that I would carry with me for nearly two decades.

After leaving the monastery, I found my way to an Ecological Design course, and subsequently a Permaculture Design Course (PDC) in 2004. Reading Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual (PDM), I wrote critiques in the margins. Steeped in Zen for so long, I was struck by how materialistic Bill seemed. Aside from the first couple of chapters, the PDM read to me at the time as an instruction guide for Earth repair. By contrast, I was interested in culture repair more than forming an army of planetary surgeons running around trying to fix everything. Regardless, there was something embedded within Permaculture that I could not discount.

After my first courses, I wasted no time. I dove into a life of designing and building food gardens, water harvesting systems, and green buildings. Practicing on properties I rented, then friends’ yards, a couple farms, a New York ecovillage, and my college campus in Arizona, I made a lot of mistakes I never would have learned to avoid had I not played and trialed in so many places.

For five years I worked mostly on small sites, never accepting pay for my work. I felt responsible both to Permaculture and to the people and lands I worked with. I couldn’t pretend to be an overnight expert post-PDC. That kind of amateur zeal seemed too shallow. I would work my way through mistakes to get results, and use the results to gain success.

After college, the people who became my first clients approached me as regulars at the sprawling farmers’ market stall I helped run in Boulder, Colorado. They invited me over to an extravagant dinner in exchange for a consultation walk around their yard. I was delighted. I recalled a Zen saying I once heard, “You’ll know you have something to offer when you are asked to offer it.” And so it began.

I quickly went from consultations-for-dinner to other projects, as I saw there was real demand for permaculture-inspired landscaping where I lived. I also needed a new income stream after the farm I worked on caught herbicide drift from a neighboring monoculture, voiding our organic certification, and ending the enterprise in a lawsuit. Almost immediately, I began practicing professional design/build on private residences all over the Front Range. In five years of residential work, I learned a lot about land regeneration techniques commonly espoused in permaculture circles, as well as how a designer typically works with clients. I also learned about the limitations of these approaches. That’s when I felt my Permaculture practice had begun to ripen.

We usually have more to learn in disappointment than in excitement. As we begin to grasp permaculture, there can be a tendency to evangelize. The ideas are heady, but the ardor and zest of youthful confidence aren’t yet rooted in experience. With high hopes, we get to work, and some of those hopes get dashed. Depending on one’s outlook, that can be a beautiful thing.

For me, it fit right into my design for growth. After all, I had set a tall task for myself—regenerating human culture. Nothing less would answer my original quest.

On the one hand, I was building the most beautifully productive landscapes I could imagine, but on the other, I grew to feel that these creations weren’t adequate to transforming life in the ways needed. Food forests, rain gardens, regenerated soil, pollinators buzzing about—these are the tracks of a healthy culture, but they lag behind the actual steps being taken. They are firmly material: prone to degeneration, erosion, and entropy.

For the most part, during my early professional design/build years, I fabricated landscapes out of predetermined visions and techniques. This, I felt at the time, was what the Designers’ Manual directed me to do. I was a landscape pharmacist, filling prescriptions for every site. But just as prescriptive medicine often fails to address the underlying causes of dis-ease, so too, I learned, does the same approach to design.

Please don’t misunderstand me: ecologically designed landscapes are awesome in the truest sense of the word. I’ve found incredible value through them, and I’d never minimize the importance of that work. The fervor I had for Permaculture-inspired landscaping was essential to my becoming a Permaculturist. It was a gateway to further growth, keeping me true to my original intentions, and I still create ecologically designed landscapes all over the country, but my approach has changed.

The People

It took me ten years to figure out that human culture deserves more focus than the land. This goes directly against Mollison’s directive that the Earth is our primary client. In fact, it’s the root of my critique of Mollison’s materialistic focus. I’ve discovered that land has an incredible capacity to regenerate and grow with the intentional actions of people. The reverse is also true—people’s actions have a profound capacity to destroy the land. I began to see culture as the limiting factor in Permaculture.

This all turned for me on a project in 2011. My work was moving to bigger scales, and a suburban project came my way that represented a diversionary scale-back I wasn’t sure about. Walking up to the client’s door in a cookie-cutter subdivision with extreme clay soils and a strict homeowners association, I glanced around the landscape thinking, “What a tiny spit of land they have to work with.” I wasn’t into it.

But when they opened the door to greet me, I was reminded how much I liked these people. The husband and wife had been in my Permaculture classes, so I felt comfortable with them, and they with me. This comfort allowed us to explore more widely than plug and play design. I was able to really see into this family. My most valuable discovery was the whole family was craving to engage with nature, especially their young daughter. In the end, they helped dig water-harvesting earthworks and planted the food forest with my crew. Together, we transformed their small suburban site into a little slice of paradise.

Over the years, I noticed these clients, who became friends, changed through their interaction with the landscape. Their yard was so small that they deeply cherished what we had created. At the least, the family healed from nature deficit disorder. At a wider look, neighbors started emulating the transformation in their yards. The homeowners association gave us the Star Yard of the Year Award, and eventually, the family left the site behind for a home more deeply immersed in nature. These are the beginning tracks of cultural transformation.

I also noticed how I was changing through the project. I saw that my landscape work had a lot less to do with the land than with the people. I got closer to what led me into permaculture in the first place.

The people problems of my childhood which had led me to permaculture weren’t problems with individuals (though they can certainly show up that way)—they were problems with our cultural paradigms. After working with the land for a long time, I realized I could spend my whole life building beautifully engineered ecosystems, but if the dominant paradigm of disconnection and exploitation was still in play, the transformation I wanted to help create would never take root.


My design practice has a lot more intimacy in it these days. I want to know my clients, to pry open their lives a little, gently and patiently, of course. I view my job as equipping people to make the changes they seek in their lives and relationship with the land, while providing encouragement and resources to see beyond the limits of their imposed ideas.

The typical list of “wants” that a client presents has proven to be a light first place to start. These lists show projects are more often about the client’s growth than the land. Even in the design stage, the land is their practice center as they work on themselves.

For example, a client may say, “I really like berries, and it would be great to have berries for breakfast most days of the year.” As a designer, I have to guide them through a series of questions to get from the imposed detail of a berry garden to the bigger pattern. It’s likely they’re seeking health and happiness with a berry breakfast most days. And it’s likely that search is the bigger pattern for the project. With a focus on health and happiness instead of edible landscaping, many more doors for transformation suddenly open. And yes, some people do just want a berry patch, which is better than none at all, but as a Permaculturist, I’m not the person to simply give them what they desire without deeper levels of inquiry.

I now view Permaculture quite literally as meaning greater permanence in human culture. Integrated design is the process and practice to get us there. Our work must go beyond prescriptive landscape design and farm master planning to succeed. Fortunately, many more practitioners now share this view, so Permaculture is expanding beyond basic material solutions.

Small-scale residential projects were the best proving ground I could have practiced on. I’ve been able to take the lessons from working with one or two people at a home and use that to inform my approach to community scales with urban planning projects, educational campus design, cooperative land use, and agricultural enterprise development. The past seven years of this work has involved a lot more education, collaboration, social navigation, and professional-level work—all skills I’ve had to learn as I go, with the goal to impact human culture as a whole.

Today I work with a truly diverse array of clients, from social justice activists in crumbling inner cities to religious farming families struggling in rural America. Each project feels fresh with potential, and each client’s story brings a greater understanding of the lasting culture we are developing.

What’s Next?

Permaculture provides a pathway to transform the world. To realize its potential, we have to use design as an empowering and transformative process for our clients and ourselves, together with the land itself.

We also have to continually upgrade our frameworks, learning from the wider community of practitioners that has grown from the idea of regenerative culture. There is a lot of movement in this space, and we can all learn from each other whether we call our work Permaculture, Regenerative Design, Living Systems Design or draw from any of the many other diverse and contributing fields. To use a metaphor from the Buddha, these are all fingers pointing at the same moon. Let’s keep our eye on the prize.

Culture change doesn’t happen overnight. I see a long road ahead. In the face of real threats to our survival on Earth and with each other, I hope we can take each step along this road deliberately and have faith that despite the daily chaos in the world, we have a path to follow, and we got this.

Jason Gerhardt serves as director of the 20+-year-old Permaculture Institute Inc. He is the founder of Real Earth Design, where he strives to make Permaculture as accessible and authentic to real life as possible. He can be contacted at

Originally published at the Permaculture Institute of North America and republished here with Jason’s kind permission

Darren J. Doherty on master plans, Keyline design, carbon farming, dung beetles, and much else (e17)

Darren J. Doherty in a misty paddock with some cows

In this episode you get to be a fly on the wall during a farm consultancy conducted by renowned farm planner and Regrarian Darren J. Doherty. I’m sure I don’t need to spell out the resonance between Darren’s comments about why he no longer does master plans and the current Making Permaculture Stronger inquiry (where I refer to master planning as fabricating).

Thanks to Darren for his support on jobs like this as well as his kind permission to share his words here.

Adventures in Generative Transformation: Shocking raw footage of permaculture designers caught in the act with their paints (and pens and pencils) down

Once again this week I share a little video to keep things ticking along while I organise myself some time to progress the current inquiry, edit up the next podcast episode, and so forth. So, please enjoy this window into a beautiful recent experience inside the C3 space of generative transformation (learn more about what this means starting here).

Mega thanks to Christy, Luke and Tully for being such a deep pleasure to work with in this way (A way they already know so well from their work as creative artists).

Adventures in Design Process Awareness – Assembling vs Partitioning

Greetings all. This week I share a little video in part because I’ve been so occupied in my design process facilitation work I’ve not had the time to write much.1

Last week David Holmgren, Su Dennett, Brenna Quinlan and I completed the third iteration of our annual four-day workshop on Advanced Permaculture Design Process. It was just the best experience and is always this incredible incubation medium in which making permaculture stronger makes huge leaps forward. The chance to share new ideas then to bash them out with David and the group (which was particularly amazing this year). I feel like I have about six months of new insights and reflections to process, many of which will in time find their way into this blog.

On Day Three I ran a little exercise/experiment aimed at giving people a clear experience of the difference between what I call assembling (Row A and strictly A1) and partitioning (Row B and strictly B2). This video shows you what the exercise looked like:

Now I’m sorry I didn’t record the conversation afterward but it is always just fascinating and in the several times I have run this experiment I’ve noticed similar patterns and participant reflections.

One pattern is that the element assembly team always get a design down much more quickly (then tweak it). One reason for this is that so many decisions have already been made in the shape, size and number of the elements where it seems only logical to chuck them on the basemap and start fiddling around with them. Another is the element-assemblers (all groups got to experience both approaches by the way) approach the task in with any number of different sequences to what they focus on, where the discussion aside from placing elements in sensible microclimates is around their relative location. One thing that is almost inevitable is that the discussion and focus jumps around as someone suggesting the placement of one thing sparks off an idea in someone else about some other thing and so it goes on.

The partitioners, on the other hand, who rather than being given all the elements then being told “go for it!” are given one instruction at a time, which they must follow before moving on. This means they end up focusing on one high level partition first, then the next, and so on. Which means the sequence is the same for each group, and that they are all focusing on just one decision at a time (such as where is the line between the area under roof and the open area).

In terms of participant’s reports on their relative experience, they tend to say that the partitioning approach flowed more smoothly and felt better and less random. That said, it can also be frustrating not to have the clarity of the predefined elements in front of you from the start. There is initially much less certainty about where you are heading, and where you’ll end up, where that uncertainty only decreases slowly and to a particular point as you go along (where in assembling you end up with something that feels clear and finished despite the arbitrariness of so many of the decisions – something I think we feel unconsciously if not consciously).

I love how clearly people feel this stuff, where of course either approach has its issues given any healthy process will move from patterns to details (partitioning) and from details to patterns (assembling) and back again.2 As participant Danny so beautifully put it:

From patterns to details and back again – it’s ping pong (table tennis) – not darts!

Daniel Willmann-Lees, Comment during Advanced Permaculture Design Process workshop, April 2019

Okay I’ll sign out for now with a few photos from the workshop (thanks for sharing Sonja). All the best and lots more is in the Making Permaculture Stronger pipeline, of that I can assure you.


Bringing it all together in one diagram (Part Six) – Mapping the Centre of Gravity and Trajectory of a Project

In the last post I showed how this diagram I’ve been developing can help us map certain aspects of the evolution of our own individual design processes.1 Check out the map I shared of mine, for instance.

Here I want to do the same thing but where the common thread or container of consideration is a project rather than person. Here things get interesting and kind of messy. For inside virtually all permaculture design (or other) projects there will be movement within the diagram. The process will wriggle around. Indeed, often a project will have feet (and possibly arms) in more than one of the nine spaces simultaneously.

The most common example I’m aware of is that a project will start with a fabricated master plan (whether through assembly, partitioning, transforming or some blend) which gradually gets dissolved or loosened up by reality as the project moves along. Fabricating gives way to hybrid and even generative approaches as the reality of actually implementing and living with something reveals previously unavailable information. Let’s take a quick glance at a few examples. First here’s the digram with the space labels for your convenient reference.


Take the permaculture demonstration site Melliodora – a stunningly beautiful permaculture demonstration homestead that has been evolving for over 30 years. An example of the above dynamic started with David Holmgren’s fabricated (column 1) master plan for the original house.

Design for David Holmgren and Su Dennet’s Home Design (from the Melliodora E-book)

When the earthworks started the fabricated (column 1) location for the house was ruled out by the reality of an incredibly hard rock reef that would have required much dynamite to shift. Here an initially fabricating process morphed into hybrid (column 2) process, where the details started morphing inside the implementation process. This is such a common dynamic it will be true in some degree of perhaps every case of trying to impose a pre-fabricated plan onto a landscape inside any permaculture project. So no big surprise or revelation there.

The build…
The house in recent times

To me a more interesting example within the Melliodora project is the difference between the process that resulted in the original house (there are now three homes on the site) and the process responsible for the barn.

As I mentioned above, the house was initially fabricated and then some degree of a hybrid approach entered. I’m not sure where the house process sat with respect to assembly/partitioning/transformation, though I suspect there were flavours of all three.

David telling the barn creation story

The barn, however, was an example of what I mean by generative transformation. What happened was that they decided to build a basic frame and roof on top of the spot where they noticed themselves stockpiling materials! The details then emerged as the went along in using the space, adding a shelf here, a wall there, and so on. Writing this inspired me to make a short video sharing the nested layers of organic complexity contained within the resulting barn. Remind me if you don’t see it on this site soon.

My second-favourite gate in the world and more a product of generative transformation than anything else

During one of the advanced design courses we run together, David gave some other examples of how these two different process flavours recurred in different aspects of the Melliodora project. In his words:

Design up front (house earthworks, main dam and house, orchard, house platform shelter plantings) [What in the diagram is called fabricating]
Emergent /generative (shed/barn complex, blue gum & internal shelter, red soil garden, gully plantings, goats, sharing the abundance and work load) [what in the diagram is called hybrid & generating]

Oakdene Forest Farm

Another example I am personally familiar with has been the ongoing process of developing the seven acre property of my mum and dad in New Zealand. So many flavours have been part of this mix!

When we started I was fastidiously attached to fabricated assembly (A1). I’d be embarrassed to work out how many hours I spent painstakingly measuring, drawing and redrawing a master plan for the site.2

Fuzzy picture of a non-fuzzy early master plan for the Oakdene Forest Farm project…

One dynamic my mum brought was something between fabricated assembly (A1) and winging it (which technically sits outside the nine spaces), getting new trees and shrubs on special from local nurseries then creating err, interesting assemblies in, well, interesting places (love you mum!).

But early on we were also partitioning the place up in the fabricating phase. So initially it was a lot of fabricating with both assembly and partitioning (A1 & B1).

As we started doing stuff we entered more of a hybrid (column 2) space where we relaxed the master plan’s grip on things and let it function more like a concept plan where the details got worked out inside their implementing them.

I’d say there were then phases of hybrid partitioning (B2), before we consciously tried hybrid transformation (C2). I’ve written detailed posts about this and here’s a video about part of a consciously conducted hybrid transformation phase:

Much of what we’re doing these days is generative transformation (C3) peppered with flavours of all the other spaces too.

One crucial point is that it wasn’t a linear sequence or evolution. Often you are moving from space to space and back again rather swiftly, and as I mentioned earlier often the project has a foot in more than one space simultaneously.

In the below diagram rather than trying to take a process signature trajectory snapshot of a specific project,3 I want to hint at the complexity of any project’s dance through these spaces. Here T1 = Time 1, T2 = Time 2 and so on. In this example the project starts in space A1 at T1, then splits into B1 and A2 at T2, and so on.

Now I’m not suggesting that anyone spend the time mapping every project they are part of this way. But I would recommend bringing your awareness to where the process’ centre of gravity does drift or evolve to over time. I cannot stress how important I believe this sort of process literacy is to the future of permaculture.4

I guess much of how this stuff plays out has to do with the process signatures each person within a projects brings along with them, and then how strongly their process preferences get asserted along the way.5 I’m sure many readers can identify with a process experience where things were sitting in one space then a strong personality arrives and drags the whole thing into another space.

Another Extremely Relevant Comment from Jason Gerhardt 🙂

Now once again I’m indebted to Jason Gerhardt who has once again shown uncanny ability to anticipate the focus of the upcoming post with his comment on the last:

I’ve started looking at the nine spaces in terms of the process that gets applied to a project. What led me into this line of inquiry is realizing that I apply the top three spaces in a single project starting with C3 as site and people analysis—a very generative and transformative phase. The trajectory moves from C3 to C2 for concept design and then to C1 for detailed design, and then doubles back on itself with implementation, and sometimes back yet again. The spaces change as the phases of work change. For example, I often do project proposals with a minimum of three phases of design work. This is often required by the nature of my work. This helps elucidate the non-linearity of design process in general. Further, that helps me avoid the better-than concepts and ideas of superiority that trajectory could hint at. I continue to feel that all of the possible approaches in the nine spaces are appropriate in some specific context from a general design perspective. Whether they are Permaculture Design is another question.

Thanks Jason. There is a lot in this. I have made the same realisation on many of my current projects. I don’t leave the transformation layer, but I oscillate between C3, C2, and occasionally, when the context requires it, C1. I’ll come back to this in a few posts time as it highlights an important difference in the two axes.


That’s it for now – I trust it is clear enough how projects really do move about within the nine spaces. Let me know about your own adventures with this if you have any interest.6

Catch ya in the next post when we’ll use this same approach to map the evolution of permaculture as a whole. I know right, I’m excited too!


Dan Palmer talking about permaculture and life and creation and related stuff (e16)

So this episode is a talk I gave on a beautiful farm called Mossy Willow Farm last weekend. The event and the talk were organised by Dumbo Feather and I thank them so much for the opportunity – I had myself a lovely time and the talk led to some awesome conversations afterward.

During the talk I paraphrase this quote from Peter Senge:

It’s common to say that trees come from seeds. But how can a tiny seed create a huge tree? Seeds do not contain the resources need to grow a tree. These must come from the medium or environment within which the tree grows. But the seed does provide something that is crucial : a place where the whole of the tree starts to form. As resources such as water and nutrients are drawn in, the seed organizes the process that generates growth. In a sense, the seed is a gateway through which the future possibility of the living tree emerges.

Peter Senge, C. Scharmer (2011). “Presence: Exploring Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society”, p.10, Nicholas Brealey Publishing

Bringing it all together in a diagram (Part Five) – Mapping the Evolution of your Design Process Signature

Each and every one of us creates things. Daily. Constantly. Humans are essentially creative, in the sense that they are always creating things, bringing new form into the world. Whether you are creating or co-creating a meal, a conversation, a garden, a blog post, a fresh tune on your ukulele, another day of your life, we are participating in creation. I even want to say that we are creation participating in itself.

Zooming up and out a little from all the individual little things we are each creating, we soon bump into these things called projects. We are each involved in a bunch of different projects. Some projects might run for a few days, others a few years, others several centuries.

Here things get interesting. Whenever we are involved in a project, we bring along what I call a process signature. It is not normal to be aware of one’s process signature. To be aware of the specific ways of being and doing that we bring to any project (or indeed, any task). Yet it is there.

Just like your real signature, your process signature recurs. It recurs in the sense that we don’t invent a brand new, completely novel process every time we create a new thing. Over time our processes take on a certain generic character. This character is our recurring process signature. What starts out as a little groove becomes a well worn rut in the landscape of our personal process dynamics.

Here’s the thing: With focused effort and inquiry we can become conscious of the rut our process signature has created for itself.1 This opens a fascinating new option for us. It opens the option of escaping the rut. It opens the option of exploring new or at least less traveled pathways and grooves though the (unexpectedly vast!) universe of process and hence process signature possibilities. It opens the option that our processes become increasingly alive, self-aware, whole, agile, flexible, adaptive, and even beautiful. In other words, it opens the option that our processes and hence our process signatures continuously grow and evolve.

Does this sound like a bit of you? Something you’d be interested in exploring more? Something you’d even be a little bit excited by? If not, well maybe I’ll catch you some other time. If so, read on. In this post, I want to start showing how this diagram I’ve been developing can help with exactly this.

A Quick Recap of the Diagram

In the last post I explained nine spaces comprising the below diagram. Each space frames one way of going about creating (as in designing-developing) anything. The nine spaces fall out of the interaction between two variables, each having three possible states. One is three ways wholes and parts can be understood to be related. The other is three ways designing (or thinking) can be related to implementing (or doing).

Using the Diagram to Map the Design Process Signature Evolution of Permaculture Designers

Everything I said above about process signatures applies to permaculture design consultancy. Permaculture design consultants take on projects. I am a permaculture design consultant. I take on permaculture design projects. Over the last fourteen years I have played a leading role in several hundred of them.

In what follows, starting with myself, I’ll show how the diagram can be used to scan our individual permaculture design process signature evolutions.

Dan Palmer’s Permaculture Design Process Journey Mapped on the Diagram

In becoming more aware of my own permaculture design process signature, I have found it useful to notice how it has evolved over the years. Here is my understanding of its evolution over the last 14 years drawn as a line on the diagram.

Dan Palmer’s Permaculture Design Process Trajectory 2005 – 2019 and ongoing

I started out following my initial teachers and books (not to mention my entire culture) which were centred in the A1 (fabricated assembly) space. I designed this way as an amateur and then professionally for a good three or so years. I sold clients detailed plans of element assemblages. I wished them well with a smile as I handed them their master plan and my invoice.

Then I came down with a virus. A memetic virus I found in Christopher Alexander’s writing. Be careful in reading this (least you get infected too):

The key to complex adaptation… lies in the concept of differentiation. This is a process of dividing and differentiating a whole to get the parts, rather than adding parts together to get a whole (Alexander, 2002, p. 197)

It took a while to sink in, but eventually motivated me to break through into the B1 space (fabricated partitioning). I was still in the business of selling detailed diagrams. But I got to them by dividing up the space (moving from patterns to detail) as opposed to joining little bits and pieces together (moving from details to pattern).2

My continued experimentation with Alexander’s work then sparked my leap across to B2 (fabricated partitioning). I stopped worshipping at the altar of the master plan. I started quitting at the concept design stage. I was still a diagram pedlar – the diagrams I was selling just got fuzzier :-).

My next epiphany was realising that assembly vs partitioning was a false dichotomy. I finally arrived into the space I now call transformation, initially into C2 or hybrid transformation. Here, as I have put it previously:

…we see what we are doing as always and without exception transforming a whole-and-its-parts. To transform is to make different, to differentiate. When we are transforming a whole-and-its-parts we are making it different. No matter whether we are integrating in new parts, removing old parts, or changing existing parts around. These are all different ways of transforming the system, of differentiating the whole.

From there I soon dipped my toes, in fact my entire body-mind, into the sweet waters of generative transformation (C3). Be warned, all ye yet to venture back into this part of the forest.3 Once you get yourself a taste of this juice, your whole conception of what design is and can be changes forever. Sure, as my squiggle shows, I wriggled around a bit, and indeed at least once in recent times I agreed to fashion up a fabricated detailed plan as part of a large development project where I couldn’t be involved otherwise. But by and large generative transformation is now my home base, my happy place, my process signature’s centre of gravity.

Jason Gerhardt’s Permaculture Design Process Journey Mapped on the Diagram

I can’t say how excited I was when Jason Gerhardt of The Permaculture Institute shared the following in a recent comment:

This latest post and the diagram are wonderful. It allows me to see the growth of my own journey in the diagram, which frankly is a revelation after many years of trying to understand what was happening to me. I want to recount that a little, mostly for myself to further ingrain this diagram in my mind, but I’m posting it here for what it’s worth.

I much agree that permaculture has existed in the state of fabricating. I have certainly met many permaculture students and maybe a pro designer or ten who practice in the A1 space. I’m happy to say I was never taught permaculture design as an A1 process though.

While I’m very certain a lot of PDC’s are taught in the A1 space, I feel pretty sure that I was taught permaculture in the B1 space (not much better really). After a couple projects I realized how prescriptive the B1 space felt, and therefore how unartful it was as a process. I wanted more than that, so I worked to transform my practice into what looks like the C1 space. I existed there for a few years. It allowed me to build my foundation for working with clients, carrying projects out, and getting a lot of experience. Ultimately I realized how mechanized even the C1 space felt. I became a design-churning machine, still prescriptive, but more organized and a little more artful. Eventually, in addition to the grind of the work, what made me question what I was doing was seeing how only some or none of the pieces of my designs were being built once I stopped doing full installs along with the design.

Then along came a client, a family actually, and we organically found a way to work together on a different level. We befriended each other, and actually came to really cherish each other. We transformed their yard primarily via the C2 space because of that closeness, which is to say the closeness of the relationship allowed my practice to grow to that space. We were able to develop the comfort, trust, and relaxedness to be able to play beyond traditional confines. Ultimately, I saw their lives change through their interaction with the landscape. I hadn’t actually witnessed the changes I made in the physical environment leading to profound changes in the inner worlds of my clients. That told me I was on to something. Though the clients moved on from that property, the space still exists and functions well 10 years later, but the funny thing is I don’t even care about the site because I recognized the design was about the people not the property. Since that point, I felt my design practice grow at a rapid, and honestly, bewildering pace. I feel like I’ve been meandering through the second and third hybrid and generative spaces ever since that project. I had to try stuff out. Sometimes the design work was just too cumbersome for my clients to engage with thoroughly, and some work became highly functional and cherished environments. As a side note, I think teaching with Joel Glanzberg for a few years contributed to this evolution of my process as well.

Now, I feel like I can use the C1, C2, C3 and B2 and B3 spaces depending on what’s called for by the project. I feel the most artful in my process than I ever have because I’m not trying to do a specific thing or attain a certain level or result. I just want to do what’s appropriate to each situation without expectation. At this point, 15 years post-PDC, I’d say I primarily spend my professional design time in the C2 space, partly because that’s what the market can bear, or the most artfulness that the design profession (clients and design teams) can embrace at this point in time, in my experience that is. I tend to work on commercial projects, public spaces, and large-scale ag properties. It may be different for smaller residential or garden design.

Jason Gerhardt, Feb 11, 2019.

Here’s my interpretive squiggle of Jason’s process journey (which I promise to change Jason if you think I’ve stuffed it up!).

Jason Gerhardt’s Permaculture Design Process Trajectory

What is most interesting to me is that while Jason and my squiggles are utterly unique, there is a high-level resonance in that the overall trajectory is from the lower left toward the lower right. Hmmmmmm. More on this in the posts to come.


So, there you have it. The diagram as a process signature typing and evolution tracking tool. I warmly welcome any other designers out there to have a play with where their process signature does or does not sit within the nine spaces. With if and how it has evolved over time. Be my guest – have a play with sketching your own process signature evolution on there. Then make my day and send it through to me.4

I just had an image arise of a gathering of permaculture designers who each wear their mapped process signature evolution diagrams on their shirts as they walk around. Some one scans another shirt and says “Excuse me – I have to ask how on earth you jumped from A1 to C2 in one shot – is that even possible?” Ha!

I appreciate, by the way, that for some this might seem too abstract, too hard to grasp, completely irrelevant to the realities of practical design work, teaching permaculture, growing food, running a farm etc etc. If you are in that camp then please speak up too! Let us work together to close the gap. Let us meet in the middle where theory and practice belong together and continuously feed into and enrich each other.

You see I personally would like to believe this work is a tiny little contribution to permaculture’s own process of continuing to wake up, to grow up, to become more present to its own essence and hence its real potential.5

I thank you for your attention and your interest. Hopefully I will catch you in the next post. There I’ll show how the diagram can be used to map the process signature evolutions not only of entire projects, but of permaculture as a whole.


Alexander, Christopher. The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe: Book Two: The Process of Creating Life. Vol. 2. of 4 vols. The Center for Environmental Structure, 2002.


Exploring Synergies between Possibility Management and Permaculture with Clinton Callahan (E15)

Dan Palmer, Anne-Chloé Destremau, and Clinton Callahan at an Expand the Box Training in Wellington, NZ, February 2019

This conversation dives into the synergies between Permaculture and something called Possibility Management. It was my honour to be able to explore these synergies directly with Clinton Callahan. Clinton is the originator of Possibility Management, which has now been around about as long as permaculture.

For 40 years possibility management has been an evolving portal into radical responsibility, initiated adulthood, whole-person space and feeling navigation, consciously co-creating fresh possibilities out of nothing, and so much else.1 It exists as a system of piercingly clear distinctions discovered (and hence there to be noticed) inside lived experience. In trainings, books and so forth people are supported to discover and play with the power and possibility explosions resulting from experiencing these distinctions for themselves.

This episode as a video…

For me, this episode has a kind of magic to it. As I explain in the episode, discovering and experimenting with Possibility Management has been a significant development in my life, and something I am deeply grateful for. To think it all started in May 2018 when I spotted a random book lying on David Holmgren and Su Dennet’s coffee table!

Where this all started…

I hope you enjoy this opening dialogue, and here are some online places you can learn more about Clinton’s work:

Here are some links to upcoming Possibility Management Expand the Box trainings in this part of the world:

As I say during the episode, if anyone out there has or finds themselves messing about in the places where possibility management and permaculture overlap, please get in touch immediately!

I end with my thanks once again to Ben Mallinson for creating the new intro and outro music – what do you think?

Returning Clinton’s book to David March 13, 2019, ten months after I nicked off with it…