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.
- As I emailed in my endorsement to the authors: “Exuding a clarity, depth, and usability that can only come from hard-won experience, this book makes a powerful and timely contribution to the literature of permaculture design. It lifts the bar a good many notches, and will unquestionably bring great value to many thousands of folk developing their own places in permaculture-inspired directions, to existing permaculture teachers and designers, and indeed to permaculture’s very evolution as a design system.”
- I acknowledge that part of this was about my own ego and the wish that the discoveries of MPS had been more widely engaged with.
- I want to acknowledge that I will be using the word “metaphor” in a general way, to include what on closer consideration might be better described as similes or analogies
- To use a metaphor :-)
- For instance Carol Sanford has a framework comprising five levels of worldview (aristocratic, mechanistic, behavioural, humanistic and regenerative or living) some of which we touched on in this chat
- As Christopher Alexander has put it in his The Nature of Order series, “Present-day conventional wisdom (perhaps Cartesian and mechanistic in origin) tells us that everything is made of parts. In particular, people believe today that every whole is made of parts. The key aspect of this belief is the idea that the parts come ‘before’ the whole, in short, the parts exist as elements of some kind, which are then brought into relationship with one another, or combined, and a center is ‘created’ out of these parts and their combinations as a result.”
- To quote Jeremy Lent from here, “This mechanistic worldview has deep roots in Western thought. The great pioneers of the Scientific Revolution, such as Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, believed they were decoding “God’s book,” which was written in the language of mathematics. God was conceived as a great clockmaker, the “artificer” who constructed the intricate machine of nature so flawlessly that, once it was set in motion, there was nothing more to do (bar the occasional miracle) than let it run its course. “What is the heart, but a spring,” wrote Thomas Hobbes, “and the nerves but so many strings?” Descartes flatly declared: “I do not recognize any difference between the machines made by craftsmen and the various bodies that nature alone composes.”
- Yes I get it – this is a LOT easier to say than to do!
- what I mean here is that there is a whole other conversation about no matter where we source our metaphors, it is possible to use them in more or less helpful ways. On that front I will drop in this line from Carol Sanford just as a note to myself about a possible part four in this series: “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.” Carol Sanford – preprint of Indirect Work, p. 64
- In episode 64 of the MPS podcast, for instance, I noted such a pattern in other books about permaculture design – for instance see page 20 of Hemenway’s The Permaculture City here or page 18 of Practical Permaculture by Jessi Bloom & Dave Boehnlein here