Some Recent Email Conversations

In this post I’d like to share snippets from a bunch of recent conversations with colleagues from around the world. So many great insights, themes, questions, and so forth that I couldn’t bare to leave buried in my inbox.

Many thanks for these fine folk giving their permission for me to share.

Table of Contents

Hakai Tane (New Zealand)

I recently found myself in an unexpected email interchange with Haikai Tane, who, as shared here, was David Holmgren’s mentor in design process. I was amazed to read Haikai sharing (without any prompting or hint from me about the latest MPS inquiry) that:

Yes eventually the final design can be recorded on paper ~ but only after the plan is implemented and completed in reality ~ as in ecography ~ however getting it right takes years, decades and sometimes longer … This is why ecography records the completed ecosystems for specific sites only when they are finished and proven ~ which is why the ecography method doesn’t work for permaculture which requires the closed system method of pre-design!

Contemplative cognition was documented by Carl Jung and taught by Alan Watts (Berkeley Uni) from his studies of the Dao de Jing.. It involves learning-by-doing experiments and gaming using geospatial simulations with dynamic imagery, sound, and symbolic logic to generate/produce co-evolutionary pathways for specific situations leading to unpredictable and undesignable outcomes … which are so much better than anything the mind can conceive or design.. it works best with communities not individuals

how to is a skill not knowledge, it requires an empowering culture ~ like Dao culture ~ Western cultures have not transcended dualism yet, so they are blocked by their mindsets from comprehending how and when to engage …. Recently in China I engaged with a rural community living beside the Huang He practicing these methods ~ they are essential for empowering their sophisticated farming systems ~ no talking or phones allowed, no paper or pencils employed ~ only dancing, music and skillful leaders showing how ~ and the rest following ~ so intricate and complex!

Yes eventually the final design can be recorded on paper ~ but only after the plan is implemented and completed in reality ~ as in ecography ~ however getting it right takes years, decades and sometimes longer … This is why ecography records the completed ecosystems for specific sites only when they are finished and proven ~ which is why the ecography method doesn’t work for permaculture which requires the closed system method of pre-design!

In giving permission for me to share these (sparkling!) words of his, Haikai asked that I add Laozi’s first line from the Dao de Jing:

the way that can be told in words is not right!

Pippa Buchanan (Austria & Western Australia)

Writes Pippa

Hey Dan, I am so grateful for all of the work that you are putting into this and how it is encouraging me to think and communicate. I came to permaculture from an adult education background and following encouragement from Rowe have ended up working towards permaculture teaching. I was feeling kind of lame about this because my land based experience is limited, but realised that what I can draw on is years of learning design and adult education understandings to try and make permaculture stronger.

I think that one of the things that hinders a more thoughtful, intuitive and emergent design process across the board is how permaculture is taught.

And what learning objectives we are trying to achieve as teachers and how we ‘assess’ the students at the end of a PDC. So I wonder if one part of making permaculture stronger is in better ways of presenting the design exercises and explaining the goals.

Anyway my \}’@% feeling was because I’ll teach a design process module at the January PDC at Fair Harvest in Margaret River, and listening to the podcasts and reading the blog has made me think about how best to explain these ides A LOT.

It is an exciting teaching challenge – especially as the discussion of what good process & design practice is still an emerging and moving discussion.

So how can the idea of design as an ongoing and emergent process be captured and explained well even if at the end of a PDC students still end up producing a series of layered maps based on a hour visit to a site and a shared interview?

I will let you know how I go, but if you have any immediate ideas I would love to hear them!

Have a lovely wrap up to 2017 and an abundant 2018

Replies Dan

Great stuff Pippa – yeah it’s so interesting in that my focus has been okay, let’s forget about how to teach design process well, and focus on what the heck is good design process, in the sense of something worthy of permaculture and able to more authentically serve permaculture’s beautiful ethos and aspiration.

Yet of course it is not a finish-that-and-only-then-think-about-how-to-work-what-is-emerging-into-teaching situation because the teaching of it is an enormous help to its exploration and articulation, not to mention that there is no ‘finish.’ One thing I have found already though is that the shape of the educational experiences I am part of has changed enormously as a result of trying to take a better approach to designing and facilitating them. A simple example is consciously breaking the habit of designing a course by choosing a bunch of cool topics then assembling them :-).

One thing we’ve done with our PDCs is that the design exercise is not only with 100% real clients but we start on day three and then progress it every day so that the participants end up have many hours and many site visits. We of course fall short of the ideal of starting the implementation but it feels an enormous improvement over the tokenistic exercise traditionally tacked onto the end of a PDC which almost necessitates a design process that flies in the face of all I’ve been learning through the MPS inquiries etc etc..

Anyways lovely to hear of what you’re up to and let’s stay in touch and support each other as we explore and learn more!

Replies Pippa

I think that maybe a broader discussion about teaching within MPS is something that has to come down the line. Its been at the edge of your discussions on the podcast, but I think that until you know what good practice is and where it should move towards (the what), it’s difficult to work out how to explain that whether it is in PDC, an advanced design course, or written into a blogpost or book

I’ll see if there’s a chance for our January PDC group to meet with the clients earlier in the week, I know the site visit is currently booked midway in week two

Anyway thank you, I’m looking forward to more MPS over the next year!

Replies Dan some time later

I am wondering what you would think about me including the following excerpt from our chat in an upcoming post sharing some recent private conversations I’ve been having with folk around the world??

Replies Pippa

Sure! If you think the rambling nature of my comment is understandable I‘m happy for it to be included.

Then, a bit later Pippa continues

Hey Dan, thinking about this further – one of the challenges is that so much of the PDC is about teaching a Permaculture / systems worldview and general ways of being for the majority of participants (let me call this “embodied design”, and then there is a layer of teaching about “design as service” in which designers work with clients. Possibly “design as service” the MPB approach gets confused with “design as product” aka just the paper master plan. To a certain extent, actual “design as service” involves facilitating a client to step into the mode of “embodied design” to interpret, implement and design from the design plan product.

So, that effectively is three levels of teaching design process A) embodied design, applied permaculture principles and ethics as daily practice (the everyday paradigm shift) ? working with a design client and an existing (land based) system in order to propose a new version of the system that applies permaculture ethics and principles – aka a “master plan design” C) establishing “design and communication practices” about working with clients (professional, community groups, family members) to justify the design and facilitate others to interpret, establish, maintain and evolve the system that emerges as a result.

Oh yeah, and all that stuff about ecosystems, forest layers, superhero chickens, economic collapse, soil food webs, keyline etc and decision making, social Permaculture, ethical economics which are all required to do design in modes a, b and c.

My guess is that this generally happens in most PDCs to some extent but possibly through the PDC being pretty solid and the types of people attracted to permaculture anyway. (A) has to happen for all students but it often gets overshadowed by the master plan product focus of the final design project.

Dan Replies

Love these insights Pippa and will share them too!

Rutger Spoelstra (Netherlands)

Writes Rutger

On your latest blog post you asked for a diagrammatic summary of my take on sound permaculture design process. I have made a drawing:

It is based on the design web which has been created by Looby Macnamara. See her book People & Permaculture page – for an explanation. If you haven’t got the book…run to the book store, you won’t regret : ) There is also a short explanation here.

What I like about the design web is that is non-linear and it helps you to design a design process for each design you make. There is no formula for a good design process in my point of view. Every process is unique.

Looby’s design web has been created for people-based designs. My version has been created for designing gardens, farms, landscape, buildings, et cetera. It is a project in progress, I’m still working on it.

For now I don’t have time to explain more. I am a slow writer and it is getting late on this side of the planet (Netherlands). But I hope the drawing will explain my ideas. If you have any questions, please let me know.

Replies Dan

Hey thanks Rutger and lovely to hear from you,

Thanks so much for sharing and hey I’d love to share your drawing and some of your writing on making permaculture stronger as part of a guest post in the next month or so if that’s okay with you. I’ve also ordered Looby’s book and sent her an email – will try and get a podcast recording with her I think.

Dan Palmer

Replies Rutger

Hi Dan,

Thanks for you enthusiastic response. It would be an honor to be part of a guest post.

Would be nice to have a podcast with Looby, she has a lot of interesting thoughts about the design process to share. I have had a conversation with her about it last year at the European permaculture convergence and it was really inspiring to me.


ps. On a side note, did you ever read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert? She has some very nice observations about the creative process. It is not permaculture and the style and tone of the book are not my favorite, but it is a fascinating read nonetheless.

Replies Dan

Greetings Rutger and great to hear from you,

I have now a copy of Looby’s book and I look forward to reviewing her design web approach (which I agree is great and relevant!) on the blog, though it’s first mention will be via yourself.

I’ll look up Big Magic thanks!

Richard Cleaver (France)

In response to your request for ‘a little reciprocation’ to Part 23, I’ve attached a map of my (limited) understanding of the field-process-model by Jascha Rohr & Sonja Hörster. I know this is not exactly the kind of thing you were asking for but it is a starting point for us. Maybe you could help fill in some gaps?

As mentioned earlier, we are hoping to move to a new property soon and we intend to use the Hybrid or Generative design approach. I’ve attached a satellite image of the acre site (in central France)

All the best,

Holger Hieronimi (Mexico)

Thanks for this series of deep inquiries into the field of “design process” – be aware, that quite a few PC designers & activists here in Mexico & Latin America, are in a similar process of re-discovering what design is all about – haven´t commented yet on the series, but following with a lot of interest and (if possible) insight your discussions, resonating with many if not most of your discoveries – I´d like to read the series in context…is there a PDF version of the instalments, for printing & better reviewing?

saludos desde México1

Alexander Olsson (Sweden)

AO: I’ve thought about the permabliz concept and how it could incorporate a generative design process. Any thoughts there?

DP: Re permablitzing I’m not sharing my thoughts until you share yours 🙂

AO: Haha yes, thank you for asking. I see an immediate problem with the whole concept of people rocking up on one day with lots of expectations and limited time. To start the design process while people stand ready with mattocks is a challenge. If the next unfolding step can somehow be clear on the day of the blitz, then that step has to be pretty large for people to feel like they have done something on the day. After that step there would have to be some kind of break then, maybe for a few weeks and for people to come back to implement the next step. Another approach could be to mock-up things with the host/client before the blitz and work through the steps, and then after all that have a blitz where it is all implemented at once. But you’re not going to be able to stop the implementation when new realisations arise, and even if the mock-up sessions are diligent there are so many things that only become obvious when the actual implementation starts. So I’m leaning towards feeling that a hybrid approach might be as far as one can go to bring some of these ideas to the permablitz. What do you think?

Manuel da Gama Higgs Pereira Morgado (Portugal)

Dear Dan Palmer,

It is hard to make an introduction regarding my feelings after reading what you wrote concerning Permaculture other than the description I wrote as title (kindred spirit). Let’s just say David Seamon was absolutely correct to send me here.
I had long conversations about the research I am doing with Seamon and he insisted four times that I should check your work out. I was too busy at the time (a month ago) but am now at absolute awe at what I was missing! Thank you for sharing your views! Indeed, let’s make permaculture stronger! : )

I am an architecture student, an academic like you claim to be. I’m deep within that realm of existence at this point, finishing my Master in Architecture at Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal.

Needless to say, “permaculture” is a word something like 0.01% of the students at this University are aware of the existence of such a concept or of what it could mean as a design approach. That alone made me skeptical when I first started my research about it – years ago now.

I came to Permaculture by accident during a post-graduation in Eco-Architecture. However, I have been interested in Ecology from a very young age. I pursued Urban Ecology, Environmental Design, Eco-Architecture, name it whatever you want, call the approach whatever you like… I know you know exactly what I am talking about.
But only within the hardcore niche of the people who gravitate these “strong-sustainability” and “deep ecology” circles, where Gaia Theory gnostics meet and eco-literacy is culture I heard about the word permaculture for the very first time.
Those are the same circles that lead me to David Seamon, who in turn, directed me to your blog. It was an enlightening and reassuring read, thank you. I wonder if you have this published elsewhere? I would like to know how you would prefer me to quote you and refer to your design methods schematics.

I found this “exclusivity” regarding permaculture to be a problem as I dug deeper on Permaculture I, II, Pathways and Principles Before Sustainability, Gaia’s Garden and more recently Rainwater Harvesting for Dry Climates and Beyond I, II, and III in the near future. I will try to explain why as briefly as I can.

I am an architecture student first and a permacultural wannabe second. However, I have always been a curious spare-time biologist and technology fan… And recently I have become aware that Ecology needs to stop becoming a Science and to become Culture – intersubjective and diverse eco-literacy as the foundations for the new regenerative and symbiotic development paradigm that we wish to give birth to.
I became increasingly convinced, while visiting some permaculture – related initiatives in my country that there was a lot of strong-willed wishful thinking about it and that scared the academic in me at first, to say the least.

I went to read the theory in order to try to understand what the fuss was all about and I was at shock. The design methodology was the most ecologically sophisticated I had ever come across. How was it possible that nobody even knew about it among the architects I go to school with?

I immediately tried to indoctrinate people. I had the first testaments for the new Bible of Sustainability in my hands, I felt at the time. I had to spread the good word. And so I did with some success.

Most people were very impressed with the core concepts and principles to be so well organized within my peers who do -really- care about sustainable designs. What a beautiful societal model they were, so intertwined, complex and coherent. The problem came when I first began investigating case studies – how the Hell could I present -that- as worthy of the attention of such a snob elite of architectural post-modern design? Most designs looked like gardens or rural campsites with a eclectic 70s ring to it.

Still I kept the logic and began applying it to architecture. I found case studies in my homeland that were worthy at least of being discussed in architectural grounds – Aldeia de Tamera, Aldeia das Amoreiras, and Herdade do Freixo do Meio (in Portuguese, “permaculture” is spelled “permacultura”, in case you try to google them to no avail).

I am now doing a project for a big building and rural infra-structure in Alentejo region within the “montado de sobreiro” ecosystem (cork oak forest molded by agricultural and forestry practices dating back centuries – still can’t reveal the project program, but I promise I will do so as soon as I finish my master thesis).
The reason I am telling you all this is because I came to feel the way you do about permaculture when I had this cultural inheritance at hands to deal with. The reason was that even though people at my research and project groups were impressed theoretically about permaculture, they were very skeptical about the final design quality of the case studies I could gather – even the finest ones! (not ecologically – but aesthetically). And that made me wonder… why? What was wrong?
And the answer that came to mind as valid was culture. I am about to say a very bad thing about “permaculturalists” and I confess it might be pedantic of mine to do so, because I never actually took a PDC or got to know a very vast sample of individuals within the permacultural movement. However, one can’t deny that we are often accused of being the contemporary equivalent of hippies – as in we are deluded with dreams of grandure and imbued with an aura of self-righteous epiphany fueled by cannabis, magic mushrooms and ayahuasca.

Therefore, I am aiming in my master thesis to dignify permaculture as a design system worthy of concern and interlocking it theoretically with many other approaches and concerns – mainly cultural ones, but also other ecological approaches worthy of mentioning regarding architecture.

I have become increasingly certain that the problem with permaculture is that it represents an embryonic cultural movement, often underfunded. It relates with many distinct societal models, but it is always deeply ecocentric. But when it comes to culture, that is where it become tricky.

Let’s just say for the sake of the argument that the community to which I am applying the permaculture approaches and ecological design methodologies is -very- strict when it comes to the priority of its way of life and rituals above everything else. How the hell was I supposed to interfer in that with something as encompassing as permaculture? How was I to -offer- it to -clients-?

And that was exactly when everything started to make sense. Sustainability is not an end in itself, nor ecology. We pursue meaning, we value perception and we seek intersubjectivite values, culture. Was permaculture naive enough to believe it had a different DNA from every single cultural movement in Mankind’s history? You are well aware that the answer is No. Permaculture must be holistic.

Permaculture must turn to Art, History and Philosophy. It must learn with its cultural roots. The ones acknowledged and the ones ignored. Ecology as culture is a very long school of thought – even if implicitly, in a number of anthropological senses. Zeitgeist documentary was wrong – science is not the only universally valid form of knowledge, nor the only useful one – for it is also not an end in itself. How could one explain the contemporary spiritual renewal and interfaith agreements intertwining with ecological and environmental movements? This is exactly what brought me to David Seamon’s Phenomenological Ecology and to the “whole” concept of “nameless quality” and the pattern languages that allow us to identify it. Again, I am sure you know what I am talking about.

My point is… permaculture must penetrate academic existing academic circles. You are absolutely right to do so. I am no sensei of Permaculture by far, but you learned from them so you must know what you are doing.

I apologize for the long winded confession… But having access to your rants and personal introductions, I felt in the right and obligation to do so as well.

I’m sorry if I commit any errors… English is not my first language!

Sincerely grateful,
Manuel Higgs Morgado

Note from Dan: I will share my reply and something of our ongoing discussion as a separate post soon.

Jamie McCall (Western Australia)

Writes Jamie

I’ve been reading some of your writings with interest for a while. I am a permaculture teacher and designer of my own property over the past years.
Without wanting to offend anyone, including you, can I make the following observations.

Some Permaculture Design Courses consciously create and cater for a professional class of Permaculture designers. I wonder if this was ever the original intent, or whether it was a sensible or proper intent, of permaculture. I am often asked if I do designs and respond that I don’t, but refer the questioner to one of my co-teachers who will do designs for people. I am not comfortable with designing for other people as it is currently understood – the provision of a paper representation of an idealised layout for a property.

My belief is that permaculture design is a process that properly belongs with the inhabitant/s of the site. Fellow travelers can offer advice, examples, seedlings and cuttings, but design occurs in the “doing”.

The amount of time spent in the “planning” stage seems to have little correlation to the adequacy of the outcomes, in my experience. Practical skills are far more important, yet there is little emphasis on teaching these.

I see the PDC not as a tool to equip a professional design consultant, but as a way of opening participants eyes to the possibilities of life outside that formed by their present worldview, with a focus on energy descent and a meaningful human response to the challenges that will arise as a consequence.

Equipping people with mental tools to think about challenges is key.

The focus, I feel, should be on empowering every fellow traveler to make their own design decisions in their own context, without reference to a class of “professional” designers. In this way the use of permaculture thinking tools such as the holmgren principles, and those borrowed from holistic management, keyline and others, are shared as widely as possible in a user-friendly way. The ability to implement these tools mentally (in a planning and practical sense) is the skill a PDC should attempt to impart.

The design lessons are learned in the observing of local site-appropriate examples, and attempting to replicate or adapt them according to need. Through this practical experience innovations occur and are again shared over time.
Designers visiting sites and producing plans for eager clients to follow misses the crucial experience of developing observational and adaptive skills by seeking out real life design templates to draw on for the next unique project.

Is this where you are really going with your inquiry? Towards a bottom up design experience rather than a top down process that is commonly experienced today?

I see the place for skilled practitioners sharing their knowledge, but the focus should be on education and empowerment – the implementation – which includes the planning phases – should be in the control of the inhabitant/s so they design to their skill levels and needs.

Jamie Burnside (Burnside Organic Farm)

Replies Dan

Many thanks for your email Jamie – your reflections resonate deeply with my own, especially lines like “My belief is that permaculture design is a process that properly belongs with the inhabitant/s of the site.  Fellow travelers can offer advice, examples, seedlings and cuttings, but design occurs in the “doing”.” I’m 100% with you on that and part of my overall mission is to try and defuse and expose this inherently problematic idea of the external permaculture design expert who blows in and out leaving the residents with a piece of paper that can be more a curse than a blessing and as you say doesn’t mean a hell of a lot when push comes to shove and the real process of living and adaptively co-evolving inside a developing landscape gets under way.

In the upcoming podcast interview with Dave Jacke we explore this topic and these questions remind me of an old article of Holmgren’s where he argues that permaculture design is not and should not be a profession. I’d love to try and spark some more dialogue about this stuff on the blog – would you be open to participating in such a thing? Even if you were okay with me starting off a post with your email then adding some complementary reflections of my own would do it.
Your call and either way I really appreciate you getting in touch. I had a quick look at your site and decided immediately that I’m not the least bit interested in either of us offending each other or doing anything else that would decrease the chance of coming for a paddle board with you if my family ever gets over your way!


Dan Palmer

Replies Jamie

Hi Dan,
Happy to participate publicly in the discussion.
It worries my the number of “permaculture business” discussions and articles popping up on the web.
I like to talk to PDC participants about the “wrong” questions to ask about permaculture.
One of these is – “how do I make money out of it?”.  To me that is a fundamental misunderstanding.
That is the thinking paradigm we are trying to challenge, but it seems many are simply adapting permaculture to the predominant western world view, rather than seeing it as disrupting the status quo.
I guess I wrote to you partly because I felt a lot of your investigation was getting quite intense in terms of language to describe the permaculture design process, and I feel it is quite simple, but a lot of people have lost their way and are adapting permaculture to the mainstream rather than using it to disrupt.
Seems we are on the same page, however, and you are welcome to join us for a SUP.

Replies Dan

Thanks Jamie,

What about I use some of your first email content in a post I’m planning where I share several emails and comment on recent posts that have come in to try and prompt discussion and to encourage others to share their view on all this (above all I want making permaculture stronger to be a healthy conversation and not about me imposing my views). I’d send you a draft of the post first for your sign off.
I’m not so sure about permaculture design process being simple, mainly because I find it to have in practice unwittingly bought into so many mainstream ideas in a way that I see repeatedly undermining its ability to be beneficially disruptive. Yet on the other hand I agree it is simple once you peel of all the confusing nonsense it gets wrapped in. But that itself is an important conversation, which intersects with the one about professional design / making money out of permaculture.

Best, Dan

Trevor Lohr (Vermont, USA)

Writes Trevor2

Hey Dan,

I’ve been a lurker for a while here, and I love this dialogue you’ve stirred up. I really appreciate your dedication to presenting Christopher Alexander’s work because I haven’t been able to get into his books yet. You’ve provided so much context to his relevance to permaculture, design and just being a decent human being. It seems to me that there’s a lot in common between Alexander’s concept of wholeness and the worldview espoused by many world religions, specifically the non-duality between subject/object, self/other, body/mind. I really believe that in order for humanity to continue on this planet for the long term, we must change the perspective that man and nature are separate, or that human beings are fundamentally different from each other. Luckily, I see people sharing similar sentiments from all walks of life and corners of the world. The dominant cultural worldview is shifting, and dare I say it even appears to be speeding up as we speak.

I hope that we can take it even further than just viewing ourselves as stewards or custodians of earth, and treat all creatures, and even the rocks and rain, as we do family. Indigenous peoples around the world related to all things alive and (apparently) inanimate as valuable as a parent or sibling; not only by caring for and loving them, but by allowing themselves to be loved by such things as the wind, or to learn from the mountain, or find one’s purpose from a bear. One step at a time of course, I’d be happy with a cultural transition towards global stewardship in my lifetime.

Anyway, I’m digressing from my appreciation because I figured you wouldn’t mind if I took your time- I don’t think this will be as long as your post! By applying your perspective to others’ design processes, you’ve condensed much of your work in this blog down to smaller chunks (relatively speaking when you compare this post to your whole body of work). I took a couple pages of notes on your three main points about Design Thinking/Rationality, Creation and Conservation, and Problem Solving because I’m actually starting a college class in design tomorrow.

Don’t cringe too fast though, I’ll explain a bit about myself and what I’m doing so I can ask a few questions. I went to college like a good little suburban white boy should, starting out in Philosophy and switching to Biology half way through. After 4 years with at least 1-2 remaining years to finish the BS, I took a break because I felt that my heart was not in it, and I didn’t want to keep taking loans for a degree I wasn’t sure I needed. A few years later I attended a PDC and learned a kind of holistic ecological perspective not taught in a typical biology classroom; and though I did know a few outdoorsy permaculture kids then, I didn’t really get the full picture from them.

Fortunately, a nice little school in Vermont offers a program for students to finish up an undergrad degree from home or any state college courses, and they let me create my own plan of study. I call it Regenerative Development and am taking a variety of classes in: Landscape/Horticulture, Diversified Agriculture, Community Development and Entrepreneurship. None of it is on the frontier of regenerative business or permaculture, it’s just what’s available to me to be able to balance my priorities of finishing my nearly complete degree with classes that teach me some relevant skills and all for a fair price. Meanwhile I’m digesting your blog, Dave Jacke, Christopher Alexander, working in landscaping during the summer, growing a little food and trying to get involved in community where I can.

So now that you know a little about me, I can get into some relevant thoughts and questions. Naturally, (or rather unnaturally, you might say) this horticulture and landscape design program from which I am cherry picking a few courses requires you take Graphics before Intro to Design. So last semester I got to work on my drawing ability where we just fabricated imaginary landscapes and courtyards, and it drove me a little crazy. I had some okay conversations with the teacher about the difference between fabrication and generative design process, but she didn’t really get it when I suggested that “design process” (quotes are for you because I’m not going to repeat everything you just wrote about those words!) and particularly observational skills be taught before blueprint level drawing. She just insisted that students need to get on board with the “language” of modern design before they can learn to see and draw landscape. So my fellow students are being encouraged from the get go to make decisions without any context, and certainly zero emotion.

I piped up every now and then in class to share some of your wisdom because these are potential future designers who are not being given any realistic context about the world and economy that they are [not] being prepared for. Unfortunately, the class really encourages students towards a career in commercial architectural design and big projects for institutions with big funding; a path that likely requires higher credentials than the associates degree from this program. There’s very little specifically about doing useful projects for lower class working people or food production at different scales, and it drives me to speak up when it seems appropriate in or outside of class. Tomorrow, the Intro to Design course begins with the same students and I’m a bit anxious about whether it will continue down the same trajectory. I feel bad for my fellow students and will try to pepper in different perspectives where I can, but I’m not sure many of them are very interested or aware about the different theories and practices behind design (and I don’t expect them to either, being ten years younger than me).
Do you have any advice for getting the most out of this kind of standard design course which I’m taking for a variety of reasons that do not include submitting to the fabrication ideology? I want to do landscape design/coaching/build and maintenance type work for the people who need it most, but can’t afford it because fewer and fewer working people have discretionary income for things like “landscaping”.

I’d really like to take what you’re doing to the small town context in Vermont. What do you think about applying such a living process to town planning? I’ll also be taking a course in Land Use Planning this semester, which I suspect will be similarly steeped in the expensive, lengthy, up-front town plan fabrication. I would love to see lower cost, more inclusive and adaptable strategies come into the small community context because many little towns in Vermont are in economic decline for a variety of reasons. I believe the heart of the issue has existed throughout VT history and that’s the impact of global capital markets on local community resilience and resources.

People in my community have even recently started a conversation on a local online forum about what to do about vacant storefronts in town. A few even liked my proposal to convert the ailing public/private golf course into a cooperatively owned regenerative farm and community hub that can act as a center for education, business incubation, food/fiber/fuel/fodder/fertilizer/”farmaceutical” production, and especially as a space for gathering and celebration.

Gosh, I don’t want to write a comment longer than your original post. I’ll write more in the future now that I’ve finally broken my silence. Again, I love what you’re doing and saying Dan. Please keep it coming, you’re truly an inspiration!

Much Love,

Replies Dan

Okay Trevor – yours is one comment that deserves a proper reply!

First thanks for coming out into the open where I can see you – may that your doing so encourages other lurkers to do the same :-).

One step at a time, yes, but I do like your statements about indigenous ways of being where it’s all alive and we feed into the rest of life as it feeds into us.

I appreciated hearing about your experiences in classes on design – because I lack much direct exposure to the mainstream of design education it is good (if demoralising) to be reminded that people really do still think, teach, and practice this way. Fabricating masterplans with deadlines, some of these words themselves carrying clues to their own impotence…

I don’t know about advice, but one thing I’d mention is that I’ve found it helpful when engaging in certain projects to have the ability to draw up pretty scaled diagrams on computer etc etc in terms of not being intimidated with all that stuff (or belittled and pushed aside due to its absence). It can be useful to know the standard practice approach in terms of being most informed toward where the nodal intervention points are when it comes to disrupting it. Sometimes a little stealth may be in order – “yes, here I am the expert who can whip you up a masterplan! But now I am in the door, here’s what we’re really going to do, and why it is going to serve you better…”

Applying living process to town planning sounds like a bit of fun to me! Alexander does give several examples of this kind of thing in Book Three of the Nature of Order, though I personally have not applied it in this context. I’d be keen if the opportunity comes up though, my word.

Please do keep chiming in Trevor and yes, I’ll keep it coming to, don’t worry about that! I’m just getting warmed up here!

Zev Friedman (North Carolina, USA)

Hey Dan, I’ve been meaning to follow up and get some more juices flowing on the thread that Courtney included me in where you commented about weaknesses in design process and queried where I’m at in my design practice. Looking very much forward to meeting you in person and going deeper in the kitchen, round the fire and so on. Thank you also for having me as a guest at the course.

Courtney and I have talked quite a bit about this lovely idea of living design as embryonic hatching instead of assembly of elements, and I read your article in Permaculture Design magazine when it came out there. I am indeed a fan of Christopher Alexander and the rest of them, especially grateful for the concept of a pattern language (even though pattern languages smell suspiciously like assembly of elements in spite of their differentiation from general to specific), and working myself on a patterns language for transformative permaculture education.

I’ll get to more thoughts on the differentiation vs. assembly question below, but first I want to respond to your question about weaknesses in my design practice. I use a stage system of concept drawings–>preliminary plan–>master plan that essentially does work with vague placements and flows at the beginning as you illustrated in your article, then differentiates into more detail based on new ideas and client feedback. I think it does a good job at creating learning opportunities for the client, multiple chances to talk about pros and cons of different options, and time for the client to self-examine about what is most important in their goals. It maybe takes more time than some more streamlined processes that I have heard some designers use. I’ve been doing it this way and tweaking it for years. The weak point is in people enacting the vision once the design drawings and report are in place. In the majority of cases, as I hear from the client – years after the final design was presented, they are far, far behind the timeline that we carefully developed together for their project. Like, farther behind than I am in my own homestead. Maybe this is a uniquely U.S. issue, I’m not sure. But I can’t avoid the feeling that there is something I could be doing better as a designer to help these designs take root in the land and the people’s lives.

This brings me to the thoughts on a design being like an embryo. I totally agree with our core permaculture premise, that like other processes, our design process will be most powerful if it mimics life forms and ecological patterns. And like we teach in patterns, we have to carefully study exactly why ecosystems and life forms use different patterns so we can mimic each pattern in the right application and not mimic it in inappropriate applications. This is why things like mandala shaped vegetable gardens drive me bonkers, because people are copying a sunflower double-fractal (ish) pattern in an application which just minimizes growing space, maximizes high maintenance path space, makes it difficult to get a wheelbarrow in, and gets none of the light access and growth sequence benefits that a sunflower gets by using that pattern.

So definitely the main idea rings true, that things which “grow” are truly alive and have an internal power and coherence, while things that are “built” must be assembled by an external force and then maintained and micro-managed by that force from then on. But with design, what does it mean to truly grow a permaculture design, or a permaculture system, based on a deep comparison to biological processes that takes the metaphor/image of biology all the way? So that the power of the system arises internally from pre-existing intelligence inside the system, as do life forms. Put another way, if living things have DNA and non-living things don’t (a tricky idea, but just to go with it for a second) what is the DNA of a permaculture project? Within the embryo, what provides the information of when and how and where to differentiate cells which then turn into organs and so on? What kind of animal is the embryo of a given project? Or, is a project necessarily an animal? Might it be a plant, a fungus, a protozoa? In which case both the format and content of differentiation would be much different. A plant will be sending a rootlet and a cotyledon out into the environment to interact and feed, shortly after its seed germinates, unlike an animal which stays contained until its esophagus/anal tube opens. Or might a project actually be comprised of a whole food web of life forms which inform the patterns of the design?

And I think more important even than what kind of life to compare a given project to is the question of what is the lineage of the DNA it is germinating/hatching from? If it is truly alive, that means it has ancestors, and then we as designers are not creators but actually midwives, or nursery-keepers. So for a given piece of land, or other project, with a given group of people, how do we find what ancestors are marrying/pollinating to give rise to the thing that is trying to hatch/sprout in this setting? I think that this is truly and pragmatically important to ask if we want projects to be alive from the inside with DNA and enzymes, rather than assembled and built and managed from the “outside”. And I think that this is somehow right in there with my challenge of why clients don’t run with their designs in a big way all the time, because somehow I’m not identifying and working as a midwife with the DNA of what is actually present.

And that is where I’ll leave it and invite thoughts from you two. Thanks for reading and for the opportunity to go deeper with these things.

Zev (Zev runs Living Systems Design)


  1. For the record this was a comment, not an email
  2. For the record this was a comment, not an email


  1. Thank you so much for posting these insightful comments Dan. I love the respect and kindness that the permiculture community affords each other.
    In my own experience I see a lot beautiful design plans from professionals bleaching in our ozone deficient sunshine on friends coffee tables in the ‘gunnado’ pile for years, while the reality outside the window remains an enormous lawn with a borer ridden lemon tree and a rotting rabbit hutch in the corner. While such features are often imbibed with their own subtle charms, they usually result in a plethora of mournful looks and dispirited sighing from the garden owner who gazes wistfully at the yellowing design under their coffee cup.
    I wonder if the long term stalling is an engagement issue between the designer and the land owner. I am guilty of it myself – friends will enthusastically ask me to visit and give them some ideas for their garden. Armed with a glass of wine I start pontificating at great length, waving my arms around enhancing vista’s with imagined plantings, vege plots, orchards etc, and will even write quite a bit down on a tomato sauce stained serviette. A year later they have one small distintergrating flax sogging in a mound of clay. It wasn’t their vision – it was mine. They weren’t engaged with it, they couldn’t see what I could see and it probably just didn’t resonate with them.
    I doubt many of us started with our entire garden plan laid out in front of us, the reality was probably baby steps, a lot of experimentation with what works best where and lots of mistakes (I like to refer to mistakes as ‘adding compost to the soil’ rather than ‘oh crap it died again’). And then there is the incredibly valuable years of relaxed evenings strolling around the garden discussing what we could do with this fabulous whatsit we just picked up for free, and would it work over there as something really useful and how it fits in with everything else. Surely that is the fun part, the evolution, the learning and doing it on the cheap. To me the idea of having a professional design your garden from scratch takes away a lot of that engagement, enjoyment and satisfaction.
    I find the concept of ‘professional’ permaculture designers a tiny bit of an oxymoron. I, perhaps naively, assumed that permaculture was all about the love, sharing knowledge, community building and gently trying to disrupt the world – not about charging $50 an hour. Personally I find it much more valuable to be part of a rich vibrant permaculture community of friends who visit, and with a glass of wine in hand, say “Oooh, have you thought about growing beans over that whatsit.”

    1. Thanks for your reply Anna – love it – you had me chuckling away merrily. I hope you’ll write more comments or a guest post some time and I am going to have to quote your words – you are able to make important points in such a fun and accessible way (are you a writer, per chance?).

      Now I shouldn’t reply here without owning the fact I regularly charge people a fair bit more than $50 per hour for something that might seem an awful lot like professional permaculture design (where I feel GREAT about the value I bring). It isn’t though. It is more like process mentoring or facilitation where permaculture is one important influence. Furthermore, there is zero time spent creating magnificent grand plans for the coffee table. It is all about being present to what is going on then honing in on a sensible next step, making it, then repeating. The sorts of rock-solid beginnings and continuings such processes generate in my experience are not possible over a casual friendly glass of wine. Invariably, however, in working this way we soon (maybe in the 6-12 month frame) become friends and the financial exchange gives way into a gifting space of friends helping each other out (when now the wine works wonders :-)).

      I realise as I write this there is an important discussion point here. My belief, which I’d be interested to have contrasted with that of others, is that is is HARD, as in really, really HARD, to kick off and gain momentum with a process of design and development or creation that deeply honours permaculture’s core aspiration to mimic natural process. Process that generates the flavours of deep beauty and life we feel in other healthy natural systems. It is easy to pepper a wish list of apparently desired elements around the place but hard to authentically unfold an organic system that manages to exclude all the imposition and mechanical thinking our culture is made of. That said, it is only hard because we’ve forgotten how easy it is, but that is a topic for another time.

      I welcome anyone’s thoughts on this!

      Thanks Anna and I hope to be in touch with you again – ideally to share good conversation over a wine in a beautiful garden :-).

  2. interesting but lot of text to scan through.

    Was wondering if you could use a pattern to highlight “golden nuggets” (specific things that made think twice, surprised you, great insights, themes, questions …) without diminishing the value of the original mails from the various authors ?

    1. Always great to hear from you Lilian!

      You are asking me to catch the fish, prepare them, and lay them out on a nice plate for you? 🙂

      My invitation, for anyone interested in such nuggets, is to wet a line yourself.

      Take in the whole scene: water, trees, clouds. See which fish leap up and grab your line.

      Along the way, should anyone find it “heartening and thrilling to feel the ripple of deep thinking resonance” (like at the least Sharn and myself do) – then please consider sharing in a comment or otherwise!

  3. Been passing by often. I have to get into reading all the posts again…. lots if inspiration.
    Can I ask what article you refer to by David Holmgren? The one you refer to speaking with Jacke

    1. Thanks Lorenzo – that article was:


      “We can take a permaculture approach in any (reasonable) job or profession but to jump to the conclusion that permaculture IS a job, career or profession is false. There is nothing wrong with people using permaculture design as a short hand way of saying they are garden or farm designers who use permaculture principles in their work. But when people suggest we need to make permaculture a design profession which can sit alongside other design professions and so achieve credibility in the wider society they are making several mistakes” (David Holmgren, 1993)

  4. “ can’t deny that we are often accused of being the contemporary equivalent of hippies – as in we are deluded with dreams of grandure and imbued with an aura of self-righteous epiphany fueled by cannabis, magic mushrooms and ayahuasca.” Haha, gold 🙂

    So much interesting perspective from around the globe. Its hard to know where to start in a comment, but its so heartening and thrilling to feel the ripple of deep thinking resonance. So I’ll just say thanks for sharing these conversations Dan.

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