On honouring Indigenous Tradition, Ancestors, Spirit and Intuition in our Permaculture Design Processes with Laura Adams

In this episode we explore part of what it means, or might mean, to bring indigenous perspectives to permaculture design with Laura Adams from Seven Winds LLC in Maryland, USA. This episode started with an email from Laura sharing some thoughts on the last episode:

Greetings Dan,I have been listening to your podcast with great interest over the last several months whilst taking part in Geoff Lawton’s online PDC.  (Although I have been exploring permaculture for many years) I am also a supporter of and very excited about the Reading Landscape Film, congratulations on making the goal.  I was prompted to send this note when I heard the most recent podcast you released regarding a conversation with your core group about systems thinking and more.  In that podcast you encouraged your listeners to hit pause and answer the question(s) themselves prior to continuing to passively listen which led me to engage with the conversation more actively and I thought there may be a value in sharing a perspective.

I agree with you that when you prod systems thinking, it quickly dissolves back to parts, and I believe this is because it evolved from parts thinking (or mechanistic thinking) in the first place. However generative or regenerative thinking is totally different (until the word gets co-opted). I come at permaculture from the perspective of a cultural and spiritual root which is Kongo-Taino out of the Caribbean. When we look at something (be it a person, place, river, mountain, event), the first thing we acknowledge is that it is “Un Misterios” (effectively a spirit) and we know that we cannot possibly understand it fully and if we pull it into its parts, the essence of it (the spirit) will disappear on us. The mode of approach is one of listening and sensing and letting it tell us about itself, knowing that this process could be indefinite. Over time that place (or person, animal, what have you) slowly reveals different aspects or understandings of itself to us, if we continue to pay attention (or “follow the trail”).

For sake of illustration, let’s say we are talking about a particular land, it could be a “property” a landowner has purchased. Your typical permaculture designer is going to go in and analyze it for water, access, structures and the various desires the landowner expresses interest in. This is a big improvement on blindly going in a throwing structures and access wherever. However, the land itself has its own spirit, as does everyone who lives on it. I really do not see that permaculture as taught even tries to understand this. The reason is simple, it cannot be measured, easily seen, or “proven”. This is where Indigenous or Re-indigenized culture clashes with Permaculture. I understand that people want to shy away from terms that cannot fully be defined such as “spirit” (or even essence). However geometry is built upon three undefined terms- a point, line and plane.  I do understand why permaculture teachers do not want to get into these waters, (there would be a big backlash and accusations of pseudoscience). Yet, permaculture wants to cosy up with Indigenous cultures (and it should do this to reach its potential). However, if you do want to cosy up with Indigenous cultures, then you have to be ready to see life as infinite worlds within worlds, each one essentially Un Misterios.

Keep up the good work!

Seven Winds LLC

To which I replied:

Laura thank you so much for your beautiful email where everything you share resonates with and inspires me deeply. Isn’t it such a muddle how we find ourselves trying to force the deep beautiful mysterious and sacred essence-spirit of a place into our puny little mechanical containers and how in doing so we cut ourselves off from perhaps the most deeply nourishing and soul-warming energies there are to access as a human being (namely relaxing back into the larger pattern of life).
Un Misterios. Love it.

Two questions. First, would you consider sharing your words as a comment on the shownotes – I want to welcome reflections such as these (which in part help me feel less alone and crazy) on the site, and hope they will in turn prompt related reflections from others. Second, would you be up for getting on a call about this stuff some time that we record toward the possibility of feeding into a future episode?

Warmly, to stay in touch, and thank you again for reaching out and for supporting the Reading Landscape film!


Luckily for me Laura agreed to a chat and so we booked in and recorded what became this episode. Afterward Laura then followed up with this comment:

Dan, It was lovely chatting with you earlier this week. Our conversation sparked some further pondering on the essence of design not just for utilitarian purposes but as a pathway to deeper connection to the heart of life. I respect that you have the courage to put yourself out there as a professional in this regard, as to an extent it is a lot easier to keep one’s profession and one’s personal design practice separate out of concern that one’s personal design practice will not be accepted professionally. My personal design practice is significantly different from my professional one, as I prefer allowing the design to evolve spontaneously within the natural rhythm of action- contemplation (reflection)-action… rather than plan it out on paper. 

Attached you will see two photos. The first is a African American cemetery circa 1850 on our lane. The spiky plant around the grave markers is Yucca filamentosa (Spanish Bayonet). It was planted for protection and connects to Bantu use of Draceana spp -used for the same purposes of protection and marking entrances and boundaries. The cemetery is the boundary between life and death and the Yucca simultaneously marks this important boundary. 

The second photo is of my husband’s [Jose Running Water Centeno] burial mound. Its design began on the day he placed a very large boulder to mark a place he called “Mundo sobre Mundo” (World within Worlds). There is now a small hut right in front of that boulder. Once he was buried, I placed other large boulders which were already in proximity to create the mound itself. The design itself is ever evolving, as elements continue to gather to his mound. Four Yucca (these ones are variegated) plants surround the mound, serving the same purpose as in the old cemetery. 

I believe you are on a wonderful path by choosing to forgo the idea of a “master plan” and embrace an ongoing relationship with your clients and their land. This approach feels a lot more genuine to what I think people want permaculture to be, a pathway back to connection with land and self. I am also well aware that it takes much more creative effort to have an ongoing relationship with clients than a quick in and out. I wanted to share these visuals, as a small contribution to your process and a thank you.

Be well, Laura


  1. Hi Dan, great conversation. Some offerings to the ideas discussed…

    Page 2 of Bill Mollison’s Designer’s Manual “I believe that unless we adopt sophisticated aboriginal belief systems and learn respect for all life, then we lose our own, not only as lifetime but also as any future opportunity to evolve our potential”. We designers could be studying this. I’m reading Tyson Yunkaporta’s “Sand Talk” at the moment – it offers rich material for permaculturalists to reflect on in my view.

    David Gilpulil, quoted in the Designer’s Manual on page xi: “To this day Aborigines are careful not to disturb the Rainbow Serpent, as they see him, going across the sky from one waterhole to another”. We need to learn how to ask for permission to create on the lands that we live and work on. My design process includes asking “What is the Spirit of this Place?” “What does this land want from us, from me, from the client?” THIS IS A FEELING PROCESS.

    Laura’s reading landscape example with the yukka’s and daffodils reminded me of the field of “Cultural Landscape” related to cultural anthropology, particularlyethnobotany. As designers I feel we must be careful not to disturb spirit and ancestors of Country. In Australia we must remember that the whole continent is a cultural landscape, “The Biggest Estate on Earth” as Gammage put it, shaped (designed) by over 200 indigenous nations over tens of thousands of years.

    In relation to Aaron’s comment, I think one of the problems I have with language is that communication these days is dominated by written text, rather than spoken word. My feeling is that the process of communication shapes our creation process. Is it a coincidence that the most successful sustainable societies did not use written word but rather spoken story, song and art to communicate ideas? Could permaculture designers learn and apply those skills?

    1. Cheers Gav. That is a beautiful Mollison quote. I’m going to go back and read the surrounding paragraphs. Did you see my interview with Tyson? So much gold in his offerings.

      I am currently reading The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram which is all about exactly what was lost with the transition from oral languaging cultures of place (where language was something closer to spoken by place through people as the mouthpiece) to the written word as having directly created a severance of humans from the living landscape. I must write a review and share a bunch of quotes sometime – it is an incredible book. The Biggest Estate on Earth is a must-read also, especially for every Australia permaculturalist.

  2. I listened to this podcast right after an interview with the complexity economist Brian Arthur on the transition from noun based thinking (arithmetic, algebra) to verb based thinking (algorithm, process). I wonder if some of our issues in relating to process and having a design process of unfolding and of structure preserving transformation come from having to think in largely a noun based way. Most of the eastern woodlands people where I live in Canada speak an Algic language ( for example Annishinaabemowin) which is largely verb based. Take ‘miini-baashkiminasigani-biitoosijigani-bakwezhigan’ which is blueberry pie. Literally translated it’s something like cooking down blueberries and putting them between bread. The word is the process not the object. It’s also notable as a language because the two genders of Annishinaabemowin are animate and inanimate (not say male and female like French). So a stick is inanimate but a tree is animate (interestingly related to the discussion on bones rocks are animate in the sweat lodge are refered to as grandfathers).

    There’s something here about the process of transformation or a becoming of forms. Would we be better at thinking in becomings if we thought more in verbs? Thinking as Brian Arthur suggests more algorithmically? It might suggest a mechanistic world view but if we remember that algorithms are simply step wise processes which affect form and have memory (and can be done on an almost infinite number of media as Turing showed) we’re talking more about the way in which nature thinks and computes. Even this theory of a panpsychic would where nature thinks through physical computation is making a few inroads into the firmly mechanistic thinking of the sciences. What’s interesting is it’s quite resonant with certain ideas of spirit and the spirit of the living world.

    1. Thanks Aaron. Love that blueberry pie example and the gender thing is fascinating! Years ago a friend and I started developing what we called VOS – where we would practice formatting all our sentences starting with the verb, then the object, then the subject. I think of statements like “the river is flowing” or “it is raining” where we have to invoke a non-existent noun-thing to be ‘doing’ the verb and yes how much this messes with any attempt to move into more of a process-as-primary orientation. And transitions from the likes of “I/we did the design” to “I/we am/are designing” to something like “designing is happening and we are participating within it” :-). Thanks also to Evie and Joanne for chiming in here!

  3. I agree wholeheartedly! I advise those developing land to spend at least one year, preferably more, in and on and with that land, gaining a deeper understanding of it in all senses, building intuition, BEFORE any design work. My experience is that designs are absolutely to be changed and evolving as understanding of a property deepens over many many years. Developing land is a form of succession, with the cycle of observation, implementation, observation, reflection and review, and further implementation. I believe that we need to move very slowly as permaculturists, slow and small! Love this discussion. cheers jo

  4. Thank you Dan and Laura for a great conversation. A few ‘pings’ for me on particular things, I feel Laura was able to articulate quite well some of the niggles I am personally trying to grapple with such as the use of intuition, in which I have no doubt every designer is using but perhaps not always aware of or even admit to. The part about the brain/body at 36 mins in, how dominant is “thinking” vs “feeling”, which I know is a focus for you too. When talking about energies, and lack of sensitivity which is so dominant in the culture we live in, it reminds me of what Alanna Moore writes about in her book on “Sensitive Permaculture” where she uses dowsing to understand the energies of a land (although I know very little about this practice). I also loved the reference to the Gingko tree, millions of years old and the sense of time she was conveying in various parts of the conversation with reference to what has occurred in the history of a place and people, before, now and in the future. I was also wondering how she enters conversations with her prospective clients about process, what she offers goes against the grain culturally.

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