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So what does my recent discussion of the problem with solving problems look like in relation to the trunk in the Permaculture Tree diagram?
Well, the way I have come to see it is that the whole trunk is itself an imposition.
What, wait, what?
I believe the whole above-ground part of the permaculture tree has been growing from a grafted-on collection of design process understandings that were imported from outside.1
Imported from places like industrial design, engineering, architecture & landscape architecture.2
Because the scion wood and the rootstock were not a compatible match, the graft never really properly took. Indeed, as a result of it being there at all, the latent energy around permaculture generating its own process possibilities has either remained dormant in the roots, or been overruled by the DNA of the grafted-on material.
You see where I am going with this. I don’t want to continue trying to patch up a trunk that in so many ways is a distraction from the work I’m here to participate in. I don’t want to be pulling apart layer upon layer of imported design process understandings that shoot permaculture in the foot by dishonouring its very essence.3
I want to dive deep into permaculture’s beautiful foundations and then to help grow and tend and realise fit-for-purpose design process understandings directly. Without distraction!
What this means for me is…
The Tree is Coming Down
I am cutting the permaculture tree down.
Consciously. Carefully. Lovingly. As a personal thought experiment, I’m cutting it down. Just below the place where the foreign design process understandings were imported and grafted on. To create a fresh surface from which all kinds of wild regrowth can spring forth.
I am talking about the development of design process understandings that stem from permaculture’s own roots. From permaculture’s own DNA.4
I’m talking about consciously coppicing the permaculture tree, take three.
To be clear, none of the tree is removed from the site after the coppicing operation. Yes, it will fall to the ground and it will remain there, branches, twigs, leaves. Hot compost the most diseased material, tuck the rest in around the stump.
Where as fresh growth bursts forth, anything relevant breaks down and is reabsorbed and assimilated into the living tissue of the re-growing tree. Just think, the fungi are going to have a field day and there will be mushrooms by the plenty. In other words, nothing is lost. I would like to think the babies will gurgle in contented gratitude to be free of the bath water.
This is when the real work begins. The work of tending to the new shoots. Watching them closely, nourishing them while delicate and young. As they grow, selectively removing weaker stems and shaping up those that remain for optimal health and form.
Making Permaculture Stronger – Phase Two
I declare Phase Two of Making Permaculture Stronger open.
Phase Two is all about tapping into permaculture’s essence, its potential, then co-articulating from scratch design and creation process understandings that resonate with and actualise this potential every step of the way.
Where those of us drawn to this work respectfully converse and collaborate in the hard, honest, yet immensely rewarding work of co-crafting, co-creating something fresh. Something authentic. Something alive.
Something worthy of what Bill and David gifted the world in co-originating the permaculture concept.
To me, this is one way of tapping the part of permaculture’s essence that Bill Mollison manifested when he talked about having lost heart in protesting and fighting against what he didn’t want. He retreated into the bush and when he came back he was a different person. He was intensely focused not on what he didn’t want, but on what he did want. He focused his fire and he took permaculture to the world, igniting a global movement.
I don’t want to be against what I don’t like in permaculture any more. I want to be for what I love. I want to be for growing from that place and the incredible potential within it.
Rather than feeling like I’m pissing on the permaculture party, I want to jump in with the crowd and to celebrate as we co-create new dance moves so wild and so alive that the concrete cracks open and long-dormant seeds germinate for miles in all directions!
Let us honour the pioneers, honour all those who have contributed to permaculture’s incredible story and journey.
Not by assuming that permaculture is finished and perfect and beyond improvement. I can imagine no greater insult to everything they stood for, stand for, to everything permaculture stands for.
Confronting the fact that permaculture is not finished and perfect, I used to think I had two options: 1) Politely ignoring permaculture’s problems, tensions, issues and weaknesses or 2) going on about and trying to ‘fix’ them.
I now see both as equally impotent.
No more of that. Let us not close our eyes to the issues. Yet let us see them as indicators. Let us hone in on and widen the cracks until what is broken falls away and we are left with a place from which to re-grow fresh tissue true to permaculture’s core.5
This is what I choose to participate in and I sense this is where I am going to direct a decent chunk of my life force. If it resonates, I invite you to get involved. To bring your gifts to whatever table or forum works for you. Where of course this work is already happening in hundreds of different ways and places, all around the world. Thank God. For this must be our work. It must be held within a field of co-creative coherence.
Indeed, if it resonates, it is because it is not only my voice. It is already in you. If this has any merit as a conversation, it is because it is a conversation that is already happening, all around the world. Let us bring it out into the open. Let us let resonant threads all over the world know that permaculture is well and truly IN THE GAME.
We are leaving the story of the expert, the genius founder behind. It has been a great story, it has served us, it has been a part of the way forward. I have only gratitude for all the pioneering genius that has lifted us high enough to see so far. Yet we are, at a cultural level, moving into a new story, a story in which a process of deep, authentic co-creation is so, so ready to germinate.
It is my hope to look back some day and see that this post was part of the needed scarification.
From today, Making Permaculture Stronger’s byline is no longer by collaboratively identifying and addressing its weaknesses. It is Collaboratively Unfolding Permaculture’s Potential.
Thanks for reading. Thanks for being with me on this journey. I hope to catch you amidst the indescribably exciting things to happen from here on in.
I am indebted to Finn Weddle for his support and for the clarity and depth of his reflections on an earlier draft of this post.
I also thank Joel Glanzberg, Bill Reed, and particularly Carol Sanford, whose living systems frameworks are increasingly informing my approach to all this.
- The idea that permaculture’s practices (what I call strategies and techniques in the tree) are imports has been around for a while. For example said Rafter Sass-Ferguson in 2015: “None of the practices associated with permaculture actually come from permaculture. With the possible exception of herb spirals…” I am suggesting the same is largely true for the design process understandings supposedly used to get to the right practice in a given situation…
- It reminds me of the wrong turn psychology took, when, emerging as the new kid on the block, and with the ‘real sciences’ of physics and biology breathing down its neck, it took a fatal shortcut. It uncritically imported fundamental concepts from outside itself. Concepts that didn’t fit, and that then distorted psychology’s ability to understand what was unique about its own subject matter. One of these was the simple idea of stimulus and response from biology. Another was mechanistic causation from physics (even though, ironically, that approach had already been displaced by quantum theory). This was a shortcut. A shortcut potentially fatal to any new discipline because it precludes the essential work of developing units, concepts methodologies and processes out of one’s own unique subject matter and based upon one’s own unique starting assumptions, ethics, and aspirations.
- That’s right, when you zoom in on the graft you find that there are in fact layers upon layers of grafts. I love how Finn Weddle put it in a comment on a draft of this post: “I would slightly adjust the narrative and say that there have been many grafts on top of each other, at many different stages along both the trunk and the branches. Every time The Essence of Permaculture met a roadblock it was coaxed (by the Gardener/designer) into accepting a new scion/reaching into the grab-bag of existing cultural norms to patch over the issue, rather than staying true to principle which would mean sitting and observing the problem until a novel solution arose from within. So instead of wondering why the tree was making shrivelled fruit and overcoming that issue, a shrivel-resistant variety was grafted straight onto the branches – all the whilst forgetting that it was trying to grow fat juicy fruit in a dry desert!”
- To be clear there will be many outside perspectives that can usefully come in, but only to the degree they authentically resonate with permaculture’s DNA. I’m not talking about closing the doors, but about getting some decent security guards! Where the driving force is permaculture developing its own material, with resonant external threads as assistants to this, not replacements.
- For those of you note-reading types up for a bit more nuance, I drew this diagram to come at the same idea from a different way :-).
I’m joining this party very, very late and hope there is still room in the mosh pit for me! I was taking a piss around the back and the bus took off without me!!
I am a practising permaculture designer and I also have quals in engineering and landscape architecture, plus hold memberships to the Institutes of LA and Horticulture. I applaud your position on ‘coppicing the tree’, and have felt for a long time that permaculture practice should be informing the traditional built environment professions, not the other way around! Those professions are intellectually dead.
My own design journey has been about conciously disentangling my thought processes from the madness of the rational reductionist logic of the design schools. I reckon designers need to ‘feel’ just as much as think. Engineering, LA, Architecture – they all have good intentions but you just have to look at the worlds those disciplines have and are creating to see they are all next to fucking useless. A big part of that story I think is that they have been captured by neoliberalism, and design fundamentalism, which permaculture must stridently avoid.
I also like your ‘new’ phase two approach of looking forward not back. See you in the mud down at the bottom of the mosh!
Dear Gav – a very warm welcome. If you are okay to jog a few blocks, you’re all good, given the bus has only made it a few blocks, where we’ve been hanging out on the threshold into Phase Two for years now, sharpening our gear and accessing better maps and clarifying on these maps both where we are and where we’re heading. Where I am oh-so-ready to get this party started, though right now I am taking a breath before sinking more deeply into the mudpit we are all already in up to at least our armpits (the mechanistic worldview), and seeing how close I can get to the bottom and then how much we can get the hell out and away from it misleading us at every step. Catch you down there, and I appreciate how you cut to the chase on the, ahem, usefulness of the existing built environment professions and also how dead they will remain without feeling. I’d love to hear more about your disentangling process too – I have the sense that maybe we ought to jump on a call and record a chat toward a podcast ep!
Coming late to the coppice / unfolding potential discussion (you know what with baby making and rearing, pandemics etc) and I think it is a very exciting development.
Thanks Pippa. Baby making, pandemic, big year! 🙂
Thanks for this tree colony model Amber. This had me thinking about what statistician George Box said: “all models are wrong, some are more useful than others”.
Taking this aphorism as an axiom for my design practice I have been playing around with the idea that patterns become frameworks when we select them as potentially useful, they then become models when we begin to apply them to our thinking, and seen as they are inherently wrong (but some are useful) we can try to use at least 2 or 3 of them to strengthen our relationship to what we are trying to explore/interpret. An unlikely pattern choice can reveal the unseen.
Ultimately this may just be a wild-design technique to add to my design proceeedures, though it has led to some interesting insights for me and helps me try to take some of the ideas that have been shared here lately into the realm of the practical.
.. What an enchanting forest gap this space has been.. to sit on the log of this fallen tree and to contemplate things that could only be thought in just this place. Daydreaming a little, the light flits through the leaves at a penetrating angle.. it is late afternoon..
In thinking more about this, perhaps the choice of tree is suspect. What if the model was an aspen, not an oak? An aspen grove is all a single organism with a single root system but many trunks and canopies generating from them. If a single trunk is not well suited to its place, it dies and a different one regenerates to try again. Applying this to the model, each trunk is its own variant on a design process customized to the place it is being applied but still rooted in the same philosophy/ethics/principals. Each manifestation of that design process (canopy) can itself look very different based on its place in the world just as one aspen tree can look different from another. I think this ties into the comment above about looking at the process as a forest instead of a single tree but with the addition of the forest still being, essentially, a single being.
Interesting thoughts Amber thanks. I’m sort of moving on from this whole metaphor in my mind, be it tree or forest, in that all metaphors are misleading (as well as hopefully helpful in clarifying certain similarities between one thing and another and in the process generating new questions). Yet I think your suggested tweak does shine a helpful light on a different aspect of this whole conversation, namely that each instance of a design process will (hopefully) be a unique variant on a deeper underlying theme. The question this generates for me is “what then is this underlying theme?” – a question I’m not ready to answer but so look forward to diving into and seeing what further questions it leads too. Look forward to exploring all this further in due course and hope to enjoy your continued input then!
I also love the thought process behind this. I have only recently found this project and wish I had come across it much earlier. I teach the PDC through both the Kansas Permaculture Institute (in collaboration with 2 other instructors) and at the University of Kansas (on my own) and I have run up against these same issues in my students’ understanding. I struggle with how to explain what is both a design process and a state of co-evolving with an ecology over time. As I go through my own design practice and my own co-evolving with my small piece of the world and the constantly renewing process of trying to help others begin this journey, I have run into these same realizations and questions and struggles. I suppose this is a long way of saying thank you for doing the work and I’m so glad to have found you!
Thanks so much for commenting Amber and great to have your voice in the mix!
Hi Dan you make some good points. I really found your endnotes about grafts interesting. And a thought ocured to me while listening is that the grafts are really a symptom of a greater cultural problem. To always have the answers. And rush to grab anything quickly that looks like it will do the job. A pattern you often see repeated in politics.
Thanks Kathryn and right on!
The map is not the territory and the tree is not permaculture. It is useful only inasmuch as it reflects the reality or assists us in understanding it.
I actually think that the design process IS largely generic, with some variations between soft and hard systems, some branches based on whether we are problem solving or innovating and some acknowledgement of the fact that our systems are never ‘done’ but designed to constantly evolve.
For me, the significant difference with permaculture is that our design model is ethically based. It’s not the only ethically based model, but being ethically based is what differentiates it from the fundamental design model.
I still prefer to use a spiral to describe it rather than a tree. Perhaps your ‘bottleneck’ thinking has been influenced by the model. I respond with the observation that while a tree-like structure might create a bottleneck, actual trees don’t exhibit the same problem and have no difficulty functioning via their trunk. In fact, the trunk is critical to their success and their survival. A trunk stays relatively stable and puts on girth over time, with the top of the tree undergoing considerably faster changes. This is a fair analogy for the difference between the ethics and principles of permaculture (that serve as a foundation for all design) and the strategies and principles (context based and changing with technology, innovation and improvement). I still think the analogy limits thinking because the primary evolutionary opportunity for a tree comes from reproducing. Perhaps a forest is a much better model, with the soil being our ethics and principles?
Here’s my latest design model. It’s a spiral. I played with trees. This worked better.
Everything should be as simple as possible and not one bit simpler.
Loving this new direction.