Han Kortekaas on Phase Two of Making Permaculture Stronger

Hey all. Okay so here’s another email thread I’ve recently enjoyed, this time with Han Kortekass from Amsterdam. Han, who is relatively new to permaculture, both supports this project and is a member of the online community that meets every six weeks.

Han’s Initial Email (7/11/19)

Hi Dan,

I hope you are well. Here are a couple thoughts I’ve gathered after your third part of introducing phase 2 of MPS.

My first reaction is a deep resonance with this development and approach. I have a broad background in many different disciplines, but one of them is contemporary dance and in particular there I’ve focused on something called instant composition. This is a form of improvisation where you create dance pieces/compositions/choreography on the spot. So without the great masterplan of a set choreography that you’ve created and rehearsed beforehand. To do so, one has to listen, listen to what is created, we are creating, and what wants to manifest in that moment. The essence of that moment so to speak. So as you can probably tell, I felt a strong parallel between how you were describing this other approach to permaculture and the practice of instant composition.

I’m quite new to permaculture and it’s really exciting to hear someone (or multiple people as the guests you have on in the show are clearly in the know as well) speak about permaculture in this way, so that has also really drawn me to your work. I feel this more open and sensitive (in the way of sensing) entryway to whatever work can bring amazing results that are often more pertinent than any master plan we could have come up beforehand. So I think it’s amazing you’re exploring this direction.

What I feel with dancing, to be able to do this well requires a lot of skill. Skills that are not part of normal training. I guess the same would be true for permaculture. Being able to “listen” to the land, to observe in a deeper way. I remember you were talking about hanging out with a tracker, that seems like excellent training in learning to read the landscape better. Also what Ben Haggard was talking about, to observe the piece of land you’re developing within the bigger context, the surrounding land, was an eye-opener for me in thinking about how to get in touch with the essence of a site.

I feel I’m getting a bit of track compared to what your article focused on:)
One of the questions that comes up in thinking about cutting down the permaculture tree is: What is left over and how are you gonna get anything done still? Is it then a question in the beginning of starting very slow, sensing all the time with the observations you’re making. “Okay, what are we seeing, what is needed here?” Implementing that and then going back to sensing and seeing what is the next step? What I mean is, I’m curious as to how you put it into practice.

At the moment you’re also teaching a PDC course. I can imagine there are parts of that curriculum that you would consider being part of the tree trunk that you’ve cut down. How do you incorporate your new perspectives into your teaching? Or do you see it as this cutting down is something you’ve done in the context of MPS and that you will explore further there, but does not immediately affect the work you do outside of that? Though of course the knowledge you develop within MPS will influence your other practices, but maybe in a more indirect way.

One last thing that stood out for me after in the talk you had with Ben Haggard was this part about the original impulse. This gives me a very double feeling. In one way this is super important, to look at what is behind permaculture, to realise what it is all about. But something inside me is also more hesitant. A focus on original impulse can also lead to a sort of infatuation with the originators. A never ending search into what they were attempting. Even though, being human, they can also never have a complete overview. And that as something evolves and grows, its essence might expand beyond that originating impulse. Though I think this is more problematic for older movements where that originating impulse might not be relevant anymore.

That became a bit long and unstructured, but coming back to the beginning, I love what you’re doing with the platform and where you’re heading and I’m curious to see where it goes as you move forward and to be a bit part of it as well.

I hope you can find some value in my thoughts and observations and good luck with the rest of the PDC course!

All the best,
Han Kortekaas

Dan’s reply (27/12/19)

Greetings Han,

I surely do get a sense of resonance between your description of instant composition and what I’ve been describing as generative transformation. Where you make it clear this is not about doing random stuff and hoping for the best but being present and alive and in the moment, listening deeply and letting each next move emerge in real time. Where you are more of a conduit than in control with your plan, and where if its done right the most harmonic and alive and beautiful and functional patterns can emerge. Love it!

Right on also that this stuff, whether in a dance or a permaculture context (not that they need to be mutually exclusive at all) requires a skillset that it is sadly no longer normal to learn. I’m excited to experience and develop ways of both clarifying the ideas and creating entry-level opportunities to practice and refine them. Hanging out with a tracker is a great place to start (including trackers of landscape like David Holmgren). It would be interesting to hear about ways of learning instant composition that you’ve experienced.

Now onto the tricky questions you ask about the whole tree-coppicing situation.

What is left over and how are you gonna get anything done still?

One thing that is left over is, in contrast with a big complex blend of wheat and chaff that one can only attempt to tweak, is an empty space. Right above the cut surface, as in the remaining foundational or source material, is an empty space. A space of possibility – a big fat question mark – a placeholder for something new, something fresh. It is a relief for me to have all that clutter out of the way, and to be taking a breath, before, as you say, slowly breathing and moving into the question of what would a high-level process understanding that is deeply resonant with permaculture’s creative originating impulse look and feel like? I am also curious both how to continue co-developing these fresh understandings and how to put them into practice. All to be revealed in the process of stumbling into the darkness of a landscape that has become unfamiliar and regaining our bearings, slowly by slowly. Luckily the whole coppicing thing is only a thought experiment meaning we can all go back to permaculture-business-as-usual if these attempts crash and burn :-).

As for getting things done, well, Han, my answer here is instant composition :-). I already feel more empowered and able to get better things done without the risk of prematurely latching onto this pattern or that strategy or this technique. By experimenting with process understandings I’ve not read about in any existing book on permaculture. I mean I take your point about how to move forward when all the old pathways have been cut away, and how this might be paralysing for some of us, and then I say, just make something up! And take notes, and tell me what worked, and what didn’t! As I said, you can always revert back to the old tree if you want to – just maybe reconceptualising it as an optional crutch rather than the only way :-).

At the moment you’re also teaching a PDC course. I can imagine there are parts of that curriculum that you would consider being part of the tree trunk that you’ve cut down. How do you incorporate your new perspectives into your teaching? Or do you see it as this cutting down is something you’ve done in the context of MPS and that you will explore further there, but does not immediately affect the work you do outside of that?

Another great question. I’m feeling excited about the extent to which our PDC is resonant with where MPS is at. We certainly speak to and experience plenty of patterns, strategies and techniques during the two weeks. Though the emphasis is overwhelmingly on the experience of a process of generating high-level possibilities and concrete next steps with real clients on a real property in the spirit of hybrid if not full blown generative transformation. With liberal doses of both Holistic Decision Making and Christopher Alexander’s ideas in the mix too. I am planning to do a free webinar sharing something of the approach we’ve been evolving for quite a few years now. We call it a PDC+- in that there is a bunch of stuff we include that is rare for a PDC and a bunch of stuff that I understand is pretty normal for a PDC that we’ve consciously excluded. Sorry I’m being a bit vague here. You’ll have to wait for the free webinar in which I’m planning to share our approach :-).

I appreciate your final point too Han. I think both matter and my sense is that with this exercise we initially do go back to the founders and explore the originating impulse/s they brought to permaculture’s conception before considering how that has evolved and been infused with different impulses over time. I don’t think we need to choose one or the other, though I am personally excited to go back and explore this early stuff and seek clarity there so we can then assess what has happened since relative that (without supposing any deviation is necessarily ‘bad’). There is already some fantastic hints coming up in comments on the blog, including Mollison’s Prime Directive.

Thanks for your reflections Han – very helpful and much appreciated!
My best,
Dan

Han’s Reply (4/12/19)

Hi Dan,
So to come back to your long previous email:)

Right on also that this stuff, whether in a dance or a permaculture context (not that they need to be mutually exclusive at all) requires a skillset that it is sadly no longer normal to learn.

I don’t know enough about the history of permaculture to know about teachings of the past, but in dance I wonder if it ever was “normal” to learn these things. A strong branch in the history of contemporary dance flows from ballet, which is very structured and choreographed and dancers are used almost as objects to give shape to preconceived ideas of a choreographer. Though the best choreographers probably applied this listening and observing to their creative practice, though I feel it’s then applied within the limited context of that piece and misses sensitivity to the particularities of the specific instance of performance.

Hanging out with a tracker is a great place to start (including trackers of landscape like David Holmgren).

Yeah, I’ve heard you talk about tracking in the podcast. I’ve found that very fascinating, hearing about being able to read the (micro)landscape to such an extent that it reveals its (recent) history to you. I’d love to get the chance to hang out with a tracker. For now I like to spend a lot of time being in the garden, meandering around and observing. Trying to make sense of what I see happening, like how one plant is thriving in one place, but a same plant is struggling in another.

It would be interesting to hear about ways of learning instant composition that you’ve experienced.

There is one British artist working here in Europe, named Julyen Hamilton, who through years of training, study, and experience has become an absolute master in this field. He has spend much time with Jazz musicians as improvisation is such an integral part of that tradition and he has studied (with) many other artists. One of the fortunate aspects of contemporary dance being such a small discipline and dance improvisation being even smaller still, is that he is relatively available to be studied with as he teaches multiple workshops throughout the year in Europe. There are other great teachers as well, but he feels very central to me as the depth of his knowledge and skill is just tremendous.So he has been instrumental in my learning of instant composition. He would have us do exercises alone to get better in listening to our own bodies as we are creating and he would have us create pieces of improvised dance. When creating together, we would be working in groups of 2 to ±10 people while the rest watched. He would then help us observe, by interrupting pieces and making both performer and audience aware of what just happened and guiding the performer towards better choices for example, or talking through some moments of the piece with us afterward and dealing with questions that would come up in these discussions.

I mean I take your point about how to move forward when all the old pathways have been cut away, and how this might be paralysing for some of us, and then I say, just make something up!

This made me laugh! It somehow relates to something that Julyen was teaching me. Some of the solo exercises he would give would get me really in my head and doubting everything, leading to some sort of paralysis. What to do now!? Advice that he gave me: just make a thousand moves. Of course, moves are cheap, interventions in the landscape don’t come as cheap, but it’s about the thought behind it. Just do something, make a guess, any guess. Go do it and observe what happens. It’s nice, it keeps things fresh and easy to get into action.

To come back to the origins as well, I read Finn’s comments on the podcast with Ben Haggard. Acknowledging also the indigenous roots that are underneath many of permaculture’s principles somehow shifts what the essence of permaculture is, in my head at least. That it somehow is not just about what Mollison and Holmgren were attempting back in the days, vital and potent as that is, but also something even deeper about life. Though I cannot really put my finger on it yet.

Well, that’s about what I’ve got to say in this context at the moment. I felt somehow it wasn’t complete with a little reflection back and your email was just the little push I needed to get myself to sit down and write it. I hope it’s helpful and if you want to publish our correspondence, as is, or edited, you’re very welcome.

All the best,
Han

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