Jason Gerhardt returns for a third episode (E35)

Jason Gerhardt teaching

Such a pleasure to reconnect and get back in resonance with Jason after quite a while in this free-flowing conversation. We talk the current pandemic, ways of responding individually and collectively, and continue our themes around design process and story of people/place. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did and thanks so much for the comment from permaculturalist Wesley Rowe that listening to this is “like peering in on conversations I have with friends” :-).

Further Applying Carol Sanford’s Four Levels of Paradigm to the Coronavirus Crisis and to Permaculture (e34)

In this episode I reflect on how the four levels of paradigm Carol Sanford shared in episode 33 apply both to my experience of navigating the coronavirus crisis and to permaculture as a whole.

Hope you get something out of this and here’s to our collaborative evolution toward regenerating life together.

A few links:

Regenerating Life with Carol Sanford’s Four Paradigm Framework (E33)

Carol Sanford mid-sentence during this episode…

Such a deep honour to have Carol Sanford return to the show after the wild ride that was episode nineteen.

In this episode Carol takes us deep into one of her living systems frameworks – that of the four paradigms she calls value return, arrest disorder, do good, and regenerate life. This framework has challenging implications for permaculture, and as I explain I am excited with the clarity I believe this framework can bring to our individual and collective efforts to navigate the current global coronavirus pandemic.

I will be using the platform of this podcast to look at the current situation through a process lens for the foreseeable future. All other bets are off for now.

Check out Carol’s website here, her new book The Regenerative Life here, her seed communities here, and the Deep Pacific Change Agent Community (that I am part of) here. The white paper she mentioned can be read in a series starting here, and she has a Regenerative Paradigm website too.

Stay well and until soon. I will endeavour to keep these podcasts coming from my family’s mini permaculture refuge (that has all been created within the last three weeks).

I’m also happy to publish the video of this chat with Carol but I’ll let one or two of you say you’d like that before I make the effort :-).

What came in the post today – hooray!
Snippet from page 162 – hoot hoot!

Nested Communities of Permaculture Design (E32)

Here we are. Hovering on the cusp of Phase Two of this project. Toward the end of 2019, we set the scene by way of chopping down a certain tree. We then disappeared for a while.1 We took a breath. We pondered. We came back. It is time to start navigating the path ahead, starting right here, right now.

Before we take an actual step, however, let us metamorphose into birds and catch an updraft to consider relevant patterns from up high. In other words, we’ll zoom out to get a sense of some of the things we’d like to make true of our subsequent steps forward.

Toward this end, I ask you to bear with me as I explore a fresh framework for thinking about different ways of relating to permaculture as design.

This arose after a previous framework led me to the question of “what is a community of practice, anyway?” Looking up that phrase led me first to the distinction between a community of practice and a community of interest and second to the related notion of a community of inquiry. Together, these three then came together in my mind to generate a further framework.2

Communities of Interest, Practice and Inquiry

There is a group of folk in the world that are interested in permaculture design.

Within this group there are folk who are not only interested in but who practice permaculture design.

Within this practicing group there are in turn folk who consciously inquire into permaculture design. Who do research and experiments and make the results available to other inquirers as well as those practicing without inquiring or interested without practicing.

I’m not fussed about the exact lines of differentiation between these three nested layers. The lines can remain somewhat fuzzy so long as you agree that it is possible to draw the lines.3

The point is that it is possible to be interested in permaculture design without practicing it, and it is possible to practice permaculture design without (consciously and explicitly) inquiring into the way of designing that you have learned to use and are using. None of these are good or bad, better or worse. They are options.


Let us move from the idea of groups or sets to groups that have internal connectivity, whether online, offline, or both. Here, we move from groups to communities. As I’m guessing any permaculturalist knows, communities are where it’s at.

From here on as I develop this diagram I am always talking about communities, not just sets of individuals.

I personally am part of a large community of folk interested in permaculture design, a smallish community of colleagues who go beyond interest to practice permaculture design, and a tiny community of colleagues who go beyond practice to consciously inquire into permaculture design.4

Overall Ratios, Flows, Blockages and Orbits

We can now consider the overall flows, ratios, blockages and orbits between and within the three kinds of communities. Along the way I’ll start laying out what this means for Phase Two of this project.

Flows and Ratios

The above diagrams are not to scale, and numbers of people within each of these three nested community types obviously fluctuate.

As far as flows go, the way folk become permaculture design practitioners is via interest. The way folk become researchers or inquirers, surely, is as a result of questions that arise within their practice. Where, ideally at least, the findings then move back out through the other communities, and in some cases even out into the beyond-permaculture community and culture.5 Indeed permaculture itself was birthed from a two-person community of intense interest then practice and inquiry that lasted a couple of years and catalysed huge waves of interest and in some cases practice in others.

The following diagram captures this sense of overall flows in a very simplified, limited way. The black arrows represent people transitioning into communities at each of the three levels, and the grey lines the inquirer’s findings then shared in an outward direction. Presumably more findings are shared with (and are relevant to) practitioners, some subset of these are then shared with those in communities of interest, and some further subset of these may end up being shared with the wider world (indeed some of them may end up catalysing folk to get interested in the first place).

In the inward direction, as indicated by the differing arrow sizes, more people get interested than end up practising and a similar reduction occurs as we move from practice to inquiry.

Now there are presumably some desirable ratios between the respective numbers of folk in the three levels that when departed from too much reduce the health of permaculture as a whole. Clearly at any moment there are many more people, perhaps two or three orders of magnitude more, interested in permaculture design than practicing it. Something like the same reduction probably occurs in the move from practicing to inquiring (as in inquiring and practising and interested).

My sense is that if there is not some certain minimum amount of inquiry happening that is folding back to enrich the communities of practice (and indirectly interest) that those communities are more likely to lose their way.6 And where if the amount of actual practice relative to interest is too low it becomes a situation like a pig-owners club I once read about that quietly disbanded when they discovered that not one member actually owned a pig!

Making Permaculture Stronger is not explicitly focused on increasing the numbers of people interested in permaculture design. I am glad that many people and projects are, and indeed the things I do focus on are utterly dependent on their important work. Part of this work is being in position such that when external circumstances (climate shocks, disease shocks, economic shocks, energy shocks, etc) compel more and more members of the general public to look beyond denial, despair, anger and protesting against, escapism, isolationism, survivalism etc. There permaculture awaits, offering a profoundly different way forward. A way focused on designing ourselves back into our local ecosystems and our local ecosystems back into us in a way that boosts community resilience and the health of the whole. Here, it is essential that introductory information, courses and books about permaculture are readily accessible. Indeed, if there were not already many growing communities of interest in permaculture design, this project couldn’t exist.

With reference to this new framework, I can now start honing in on what Making Permaculture Stronger is about as it moves forward. Where I’m clear a core focus is participating in and supporting the existence and health of communities of permaculture design practice and inquiry in service of permaculture’s overall health and evolution. Reflecting on this, I am particularly interested in helping to increase the practice side of the interest:practice ratio as high as it wants to go. Once practice is up in a healthy place then the same approach can be taken to upping the number of folk engaged in communities of inquiry.

Which brings us directly to certain systemic dynamics that are blocking key flows that I see as highly desirable. Namely what is happening where the question marks are in this diagram:

Blockages and Orbits

Interest to Practice

It is a lot easier to become interested in permaculture design than it is to start practicing it.

Let me back that claim up.

People regularly tell me they are interested in permaculture design but struggling to find a path from interest into practice. “Tell them to go do a PDC,” you say. Thing is, they all already have at least one PDC, sometimes several. Completing a PDC does not get you across the line. A PDC generally takes you from interested to more interested. The domain of practice still eludes you. As Jason Gerhardt put it, you get shot out of a PDC into a void as large as the whole world. As Ben Haggard put it, you leave this energy-building conversion experience to confront the sheer disjunct between the energy and approach you just experienced and the reality of your everyday life and social circles.

I attempt to catch these facts in the framework diagram by making the line between the outside world and communities of interest faint and dashed (i.e., highly permeable) and the line between interest and practice solid. Now I’ll explain the various aspects of the situation that I’ve represented in the diagram. Maybe for fun you can try and decipher yourself first?

So the thick black line is folk initially entering communities of interest in permaculture design. After cruising along and perhaps deepening their interest a little, some of them continue being interested, some of them leave to pursue the next thing that has come along (in some cases to later return), some of them do a PDC. The PDC arrow shows a deepening of interest and a bringing up against the cusp of the transition into practice. However as I shared above many people while keen to start practicing get deflected back into the orbit of interest. Some make a second or third attempt by doing a second or third PDC over time. Where of course some get through, as shown. But not that many, as best I can tell. Often those that break through are either already designers of some kind, or are hard-headed and determined enough to just keep charging at the boundary till it yields.

Anyways, supporting interested folk to start practicing permaculture design within a community of practice is henceforth a core focus of Making Permaculture Stronger. In the below diagram I show this by helping make at least a section of the boundary between the two more permeable and friendly to navigate. I have no question that this will increase the numbers of folk making it through.

I also want to be clear I hold no assumption that everyone will want in. It is totally legitimate to do a PDC then not continue to practice permaculture design. I’m talking about serving the folk that come out of a PDC wanting or called to start practicing, without any expectation of anyone else.

I also want to acknowledge the great and many permaculture inquirers out there who are already doing exactly this fine work of helping folk across the line – kudos to you, please reach out and share your learnings with me, and let’s continue to up our game together!

My currently active interventions in this space are:

  • hosting a six-weekly gathering of project supporters where we’re developing our permaculture design skills together
  • writing a book sharing the first Phase of this project in an accessible way focused on actual design practice
  • writing another book clearly showing how what I’m calling Living Design Process works on the ground

Practice to Inquiry

Another category of folk who are semi-regularly in touch have already been practicing permaculture design at a professional level for several or even five or ten years. They have made it through the membrane between interest and practice in their own unique way. However they now find themselves bumping up against certain systemic issues we’ve heard so many of my podcast guests (and myself) mention:

  • Clients not able to receive / understand designs
  • Designs getting second guessed
  • Designs never being implemented
  • Designed systems failing to co-evolve once implemented
  • General sense of disillusionment with the whole design approach they’ve been taught and are trying to make work
  • Sense that a different, better, more inclusive and successful way forward is possible, yet are unsure about how to make some of these new flavours work within their existing business or value-exchange model

One way I think about this is that it is all very well and good to make it across the line and to really truly start practising permaculture design. What we generally don’t realise until many years later is that there is this massive rut we almost inevitably fall into. It is a rut that leads to the complaints above. It is the rut of practicing permaculture design using the default design process paradigm of our wider culture. The rut is made from ideas including:

  • design is fundamentally a mechanical process of assembling elements into whole systems
  • permaculture design is a process of inserting objects into empty space
  • design is primary a noun as in a professional-looking picture that is drawn by a qualified expert then handed over to the ‘clients’
  • the way to create something is first to finish a rationally considered detailed design only then to implement it
  • permaculture design practice is about becoming a designer who does designs for others
  • what ‘clients’ say they want is what they want
  • other have already figured out permaculture design process so we can just run with what they said
  • along with many other ideas we need not crack open right now…

Which as I write this gets me reflecting. I feel that some folk have to escape the rut and deepen their practice and make it into a community of inquiry to generate fresh understandings from outside of the rut that then become ladders or frames folk still in the rut can use to get out or clamber clean over it. Where everyone involved supports each-other to stay the heck away from the rut and when they (almost inevitably) start falling back in…

Makes me think that part of Making Permaculture Stronger’s interest is calling attention to the rut, growing living bridges right over it, and in the process making the line between communities of practice and inquiry more permeable also:

My current experiments in this space of supporting existing designers (including myself) to transform, deepen and grow their practice in community are:

  • Continuing to record interviews with experienced designers and hear about their rut-escaping/hopping adventures
  • Starting a series of podcast episodes where I work one-on-one to support existing designers to transform, deepen and grow their practice. Flick me a message if this sounds like a bit of you and you want to get in line.

Part of my emerging intention here is to help create, consolidate and strengthen global and local communities of practicing permaculture designers who are consciously deepening their practice and building unprecedented levels of shared permaculture design process literacy. I mean what the heck – you’re only young once, right?

Other Foci Emerging from this Exercise

In addition to supporting interested parties to get practicing and practicing parties to deepen their practice, here are two more places I’ll be focusing attention as integral parts of Phase Two:

Consciously supporting the development of communities of inquiry

My main way of doing this is this blog and podcast and all the conversations happening inside and around them. This feels like it is growing and I’m excited for that. I feel like the main thing is co-creating more spaces and places to support each other’s inquiries and sharings. An annual or bi-annual distributed online gathering? Who knows! One clear inclination I have here is to partner with or at least contribute more to existing forums such as the excellent Permaculture Design Magazine.

Within community of inquiry, co-developing process understandings aligned with Permaculture’s originating impulse

Now I’ve gone and chopped the tree down, alongside the above things I’ll be focusing on, I want to support myself and others to develop and share process experiments and understandings that grow from and resonate with permaculture’s core. With what Ben Haggard referred to as permaculture’s original creative impulse. Part of this is starting to share more and more about what I’m calling Living Design Process, which is one humble attempt at just that. I am also motivated to continue exploring more of the riches the regenerative living systems thinking approach of Carol Sanford and the Regenesis crew have to offer permaculture. In particular to increasingly use Living Systems Frameworks to non-judgmentally lift our game as permaculture designers.

Wrapping Up

Okay, that gives you a head up on what is happening from here, toward Making Permaculture Stronger’s current purpose:

Making Permaculture Stronger inspires creative exploration and dialogue around permaculture design, in a way that develops our ability to think and act creatively as a community, to enable permaculture practitioners to effect the large scale systemic change we need.

Thank you, bless you, and catch you amidst the fun times ahead!


Article on Generative Transformation in Permaculture Design Magazine (e31)

That’s right, the February 2020 issue of Permaculture Design Magazine features an article by my good self on the topic of generative transformation (and the below chart). Adapted from a series of past posts here on Making Permaculture Stronger, editor Rhonda Baird invited a contribution and this topic felt like a natural fit with the episode’s focus on emergent design. I can’t wait to get my hands on the whole issue and if you feel the same way go order a copy here or subscribe and support their great service to the permaculture community.

As a prelude to this project picking itself back up again after an unexpectedly long summer hibernation (on the surface at least!), I share both a PDF of the article as it appeared in the mag and I’ve recorded a podcast episode where I read the article out for your listening pleasure.

I also include Rhonda Baird’s excellent opening comments from the issue’s editorial:

Emergent design was one of the leading takeaways for me from our issue exploring Design Process (Permaculture Design #108). Most teachers, according to my understanding, approach the design process as a static, linear one which requires the designer to see and know all things from original principles—implementing them with flawless perfection. The resulting imprint of our imagination onto reality might make Plato proud, but it probably doesn’t happen very often in reality.

Recognizing and valuing the fluid, responsive, and messy reality of design and implementation is crucially important. Perhaps it is so important because it requires us to be humble and question our assumptions. But recognizing this messy reality also helps students and clients proceed by accepting there will be valuable mo- ments for feedback and by making adjustments along the way. Adaptability and imaginative response are wonderful foundations for survival and sustainability.

More to the point, emergent design allows us to find the growing edge of complex systems and respond ap- propriately. We talk about the concept of “the edge is where the action is.” Permaculturists know the capacity to identify and engage that edge in our rapidly changing world is essential to our success in pushing systems in a positive, life-affirming direction.

The more experience we have in design and implementation, the more intuitive our processes become so that design takes less time and realizes more success. How can we work together to ensure others recognize the value of this work?

Rhonda Baird – opening words of editorial for issue #115 of the Permaculture Design Magazine

Enjoy and catch you very soon with much sharing about the emerging intentions this project will be generatively transforming itself toward in the coming months :-).

What permaculture isn’t – Guest Post by Meg McGowan

Hey all. Dan here. Yes, that’s right, I’m still here, having kind of disappeared with my family to enjoy almost two months mostly offline in a reception-free haven in NZ called Oakdene Forest Farm. Designing, planting, pruning, building, swimming and immersing in a beautiful community we are part of there. Fear not, however, this project is still going strong even if things have been a little quiet on the public surface. Our online designer’s guild is still meeting, I’ve been doing a heap of offline writing about design process, and I’m feeling rejuvenated after a huge 2019 and ready to power ahead with MPS for the rest of 2020. You’ll be seeing more posts and hearing more podcast episodes from me VERY soon. Meantime, thanks to Meg McGowan for allowing me to repost a recent post of hers here.

It’s an exciting time for permaculture. More and more people are discovering this endlessly useful, ethically based design pattern. We live in a time when creating and evolving systems that increase ecological health is suddenly becoming a priority, and something that allows us to combine that with providing for human needs seems like a bit of a dream. But it’s real.

Those of us that have been inhabiting the permaculture world for many years are both delighted and relieved to suddenly be so popular. Courses fill quickly. Friends that have possibly considered us to be their weird, greenie friends are suddenly asking if they can learn from us. Sadly, it took the entirely predictable consequences of the climate crisis to bring many of these people to the garden, but better late than never.

There is a risk when anything gains popularity. The band wagons are circling and the word ‘permaculture’ is turning up in some questionable places. Sometimes it’s easier to define something by explaining what it isn’t. Here’s my best attempt at that. It’s possible I’ll ruffle some feathers. Please feel free to disagree with me in the comments.

It isn’t organic gardening

I have heard this said by someone in charge of a permaculture event, when asked for a definition.

Look, it’s just organic gardening really.

No, it really isn’t. It’s true that if you are going to design a garden using permaculture then it’s likely you will avoid synthetic chemicals because they are inconsistent with the ethics of earth care and people care. I have also known people defend their occasional use using the same ethics. A bush regenerator defended ‘cut and paint’ methods, where large woody weeds are poisoned, on the basis that she couldn’t think of any other way to save a badly infested area of bushland. I’m still not sure about that one, but I can appreciate the fact that there may be circumstances where the limited and judicious use of a chemical might be the more earth-friendly and human-friendly option to the alternatives. So not organic.

I’m also unlikely to use many organically approved substances in my garden. I prefer to practice integrated pest management and allow the system to achieve balance. If you want what eats aphids you need aphids. It turns out that leaving the aphids for a few seasons will dramatically increase the presence of tiny birds in your garden. Tiny birds are pest managers, pollinators and fertilisers (by way of their droppings) so the loss of a few chewed leaves to aphids is a small price to pay.

I have never used dipel to kill caterpillars because I want butterflies, and the birds that eat the caterpillars. I have never used a beer trap to kill snails because it will also kill the native snails that eat the European snails. When it comes to many organic methods, the solution is the problem. Permaculture is about designing integrated systems where the relationships between things matter. You can use organic methods to grow a monoculture of organic food but this wouldn’t be a permaculture system. You can also use permaculture to design systems that have nothing at all to do with gardening.

It isn’t self sufficiency

This is a common misconception and people are genuinely surprised to learn that I would prefer to purchase most of my organic fruit from local growers than to grow my own. It’s a much more efficient use of my time and energy and the professional growers are vigilant about preventing fruit fly and other pest infestations, whereas I might be too busy in some other part of the garden to notice. I would also prefer to buy just a few apples when I need them than to process a glut. I do have a few apple trees and make a highly prized fruit jelly every year before the king parrots happily devour the rest. You can’t buy king parrots.

Self sufficiency is hard work, and not appealing to most people. It can also be a poor use of energy because some things are more efficiently produced on a larger scale. Permaculture is about getting that scale right using the core ethics. I avoid imported foods because of concerns about production and the energy used to transport them. I support local regenerative farmers because their work builds biosecurity locally and provides a food production model that increases ecological health. They also use less land to feed more people because of their established distribution networks and full time attention to production.

Permaculture is seeking to define a permanent model of human culture that includes interdependent communities. People specialise in the things they enjoy and share with each other. I don’t have bees or chickens, but I am rarely without eggs or honey. Bee keepers are welcome to put their hives in my garden and friends gift me eggs when they visit. People rarely leave here empty handed, cherishing a home grown pumpkin, some finger limes or warrigal greens, or whatever else I have in abundance.

Our local produce share event is just one way for people to practice the third permaculture ethic of ‘fair share’ and people get more from this event than just the free food. They also build friendships and networks within the local community. These bonds are at the heart of permaculture. Communities where everyone must provide for their own needs would be lonely, as self sufficiency usually demands most of your waking hours to manage. It also disadvantages those without the land, ability or skills to be self sufficient. David Holmgren’s epic book, Retrosuburbia, imagines future communities of cooperation rather than isolated hubs of self sufficiency.

It isn’t permaculture just because someone calls it permaculture

This one is starting to turn up more and more as permaculture goes mainstream. It has the potential to derail permaculture. If you sign on to do a course and find it’s just a front for someone selling you something entirely different, or if you read about a ‘permaculture project’ and find the ethics behind it questionable, you might draw a line across the whole movement, and that would be a pity, because there is so much within permaculture to improve the planet and our lives.

Here’s the best test to apply; does the thing claiming to be permaculture demonstrate alignment to the three core ethics of earth care, people care and fair share (or future care if you’re in that part of the world)? It’s important that it demonstrates alignment to all three ethics and not just one or two. Next, measure it against your favourite set of permaculture principles. David Holmgren’s set have become deservedly popular and Bill Mollison’s are also a worthy yard stick. Run through your principles and ask, “To what extent does this………?” for each one.

I’m particularly concerned here about technological ‘solutions’ to the problems facing humanity. Solar panels are a great example. A well designed permaculture home would seek to use energy at its highest level, so clothes would be sun dried rather than put in a solar powered electric drier, and the house would be insulated and ventilated before resorting to solar powered air conditioning. Solar energy remains a superior alternative to fossil fuels but in it’s current form it should be considered transitional technology and not an answer. It continues to require mined products and fossil fuels for production and transport. It has the potential to contribute significantly to the waste stream, particularly if the life of solar panels is cut short by hail storms, as happened to us recently. Yes, install them if you can afford them, add your own battery too, and continue to treat electricity as a second or third level form of energy, to be used only when natural energies can’t be used directly.

As a species, we often seek a technological solution to our problems. I have recently seen a scheme for pumping cooler water up to the ocean’s surface as just one example. What happens to the ocean floor and the indigenous life when we do this? How will creating tiny pockets of cooled ocean resolve the broader problem of it warming up? What materials will be used to construct these systems and to power them? What happens to them when they no longer function? Has anyone done the maths on the CO2 produced compared to the CO2 released? Shouldn’t we be focusing on reducing and removing the causes of global warming instead?

If all you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail. Permaculture challenges us to first consider low tech alternatives. For all our cleverness, a leaf is still superior to a solar panel. When we can create a self-replicating solar panel that efficiently produces energy and decomposes to nourish the creation of the next one we’ll be getting close to as clever.

It isn’t perfect or dogmatic

Permaculture could have been embedded in academia and preserved in its original form for the benefit of future students. Instead, the co-originators, both academics, decided to set it free. They saw their initial work, impressive as it was, as the foundation of something that would continue to grow and evolve over time. And evolve it did.

This decision almost certainly contributed to the rapid spread and broad adoption of permaculture as a design model. Anyone completing a 72 hour design course could teach it and anyone could practice it. You will now find practitioners, designers, teachers and advocates of permaculture on every continent. In some countries there have been attempts to restrict and regulate the model but it will always be wild and free to anyone choosing to study it.

Both David Holmgren and Bill Mollison, the co-originators, redesigned the model a number of times and David continues to do so. In recent years when Dan Palmer decided to focus his considerable energy on making permaculture stronger he was actively encouraged by David and the two of them now teach together.

The nature of an evolving system is that it never claims perfection. Permaculture in its current form is its best self and still allows room for improvement. I believe this is one of the model’s great strengths. It invites me to engage with it, to consider how I might improve it and to justify any changes I make to it. It continues to be an evolving, diverse forest of knowledge rather than a brick box. From time to time it experiences weed infiltration, but the strength of the underlying model is naturally resilient.

As the climate crisis unfolds it is clear that there are challenges that are beyond the scope of the current permaculture model. Some problems will require new thinking. This doesn’t invalidate permaculture but it does call upon us to evolve it in a way that is ethically consistent so that we can meet these challenges.

It isn’t always called ‘permaculture’

The permaculture model was informed by many different sources. The co-originators acknowledge the wisdom of indigenous peoples, the contemporary environmental movement of the 1970’s, the alternative agriculture movement and the emergent bodies of knowledge around systems thinking, networking theory and ecology as all having an influence upon the model. Permaculture was initially a reaction against broad acre farming and the damage it caused. It was a quest to find a viable alternative and considered not only food production but social models and economic systems. It has never been just about farming.

Because the model is derivative, there are many examples of human endeavour that align with permaculture, even though the people responsible may have never heard the word. Many past and existing models developed by First Nations People will have a lot of things in common with permaculture because of their shared commitment to protecting the earth. Because of this, I have seen people criticise the permaculture as cultural appropriation. I don’t believe that there is evidence to support this claim.

In cases where First Nations methods and technology have been incorporated or referenced as part of the permaculture model they are always acknowledged with deep respect and due credit. It would have been offensive not to include this deep wisdom within any proposal for human existence. There is also much in permaculture that comes from other sources. Permaculture harvests from the rich and diverse veins of human experience and combines that knowledge in new ways. There is no attempt at theft and no claim of credit for anyone else’s work and it is not just a relabelling of something else.

Permaculture was also deeply informed by the lessons gained through observing natural systems and their capacity for dynamic equilibrium. These lessons have always been there for anyone prepared to see them.

Students often comment that permaculture describes what, to some extent, they have already been thinking and doing. This is a good thing. It validates permaculture as a pattern aligned with the human-ness of the human. It doesn’t ask us to push ourselves into awkward patterns, but to return to a pattern inherently human. It is not surprising that there are many models with strong similarities. The Ecovillage pattern, and the Buckminster Fuller design model are both closely aligned. I can remember someone in a permaculture course suggesting that systems thinking had appropriated permaculture (she actually said ‘stolen’) because she was unaware that systems thinking predated it and informed it.

In any field of human endeavour where people are trying to protect and restore the natural world you’ll find a context where permaculture also fits, even though the people involved may never have heard of it. This matters because we should remember that permaculture is just one of many design patterns with similar goals. I could have as easily become a systems thinking designer, or an ecological designer. I happened to come to an understanding of ethically based designing via permaculture so that is where I live.  I care more about the core ethics than what people call it. Anyone caring for the earth, caring for people, caring about the future, seeking to place limits on our growth and redistributing surplus is okay with me.

So another thing permaculture isn’t would be the only answer, or the only way of designing or the only model for human existence. This matters because it reminds us to explore beyond the borders of permaculture for improvements to the model. Our edges with similar models are, like all edges, places where good things accumulate.

So what is it?

My current favourite definition of permaculture (because everything evolves) is this:

Permaculture is an ethically based pattern for designing evolving systems that increase ecological health while providing for human needs.

It’s all in there. The ethical foundation and the fact that it’s a pattern that can be applied in all sorts of different contexts. A statement that we are designing systems and that these systems are not static, but evolving over time. A clear focus on ecological health first because without caring for our planet we will not sustain human life. The provision of human needs as an imperative, because for all our sins against the planet we are also responsible for much that is good in the world.

We alone have the ability among all species to destroy our planet. We alone have the means and the responsibility to repair the damage done and restore the natural world. Deep within each of us is this yearning for a different life, where wealth is measured in good local food, joyful community and connection to the natural world. Where each of us leaves our earth in better condition than we found it. Where our real needs are met. Permaculture provides us with a pattern for heading firmly in that direction.

We are running out of time.


You can read more from Meg at her blog Smarter than Crows.

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,

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,

Shane Ward on the Carol Sanford and Jason Gerhart Episodes

Hey all – here I continue sharing some (initially private) correspondence from recent months.

Thanks to my friend and colleague Shane Ward from Action Ecology for letting me share his reflections on two of the recent MPS podcast episodes below. I’ll add any comments of my own in italics as I read through them.

Enjoy, thanks as always for your interest, engagement and support, keep the messages and comments coming, and catch you next year.


On the Carol Sanford Interview

SW: Hey Dan,

Just watched the Carol Sanford interview… that was fun! I thought I’d share some thoughts.. just because I felt like it I guess… 

Very interesting. Quite a bit resonated with my thinking at the minute.

Makes me think you should listen to Rupert Sheldrake (I’m reasonably sure I’ve mentioned him to you before and you may have come across him previously), but his theory of ‘morphic resonance’ – memory in nature (nested wholes) – and his challenging of the ten dogmas of materialist science in particular would be right up your alley (here is the book, and you can find one of many good talks he did on this here). I’ve had the pleasure of spending some time with Rupert one-on-one and his knowledge of not just biological sciences, but history of science is really helpful in giving context as to WHY we have the kind of paradigms we do now.

DP: I have engaged a little with Rupert’s work and would be curious to learn more. I was impressed with the second of two interviews he did with Charles Eisenstein. I just watched him summarising the ten dogmas which largely resonate (especially the first). I am not familiar with morphic resonance which I must look up I have heard so many references to it. Incidentally those latter dogmas he mentions about the mind and consciousness being in the brain were a focus during my time at university.

SW: The idea that “there is no feedback in nature” is interestingly at odds with the perspective of evolutionary ecology on this – which would say that all life (from a genetic point of view) is essentially a dance between randomness (genetic drift) and natural selection played out within an environmental context.. therefore it’s kind of ALL feedback. The living world is a result of this dance determining what genes are passed on / expressed and therefore that’s why a kingfisher gets that beak (for example) or we have land plants etc.. the idea being that it’s additive, and exploratory and millions of possibilities are explored and the ones that work in a particular context persist. It’s the result of a concerted effort over centuries to remove any hint of a ‘designer’ from the story of life (lol), but it’s pretty cogent. Not flawless, but it’s interesting to contrast that with what Carol says. Evolutionary biologists would say that there is no ‘choice’ to be one thing or another, and that ‘feedback’ pressures from environmental stimuli (both biotic and abiotic) is what is driving everything..  but I’m not 100% sure if Carol and I mean the entirely the same thing when using that word. Hmmm.. words huh?   😉

DP: Yeah as I understand her she means something different, something closer to its original sense of “the return to the input of a part of the output of a machine, system, or process.” I’d be curious to take a look through her book No More Feedback to learn more (is a free sample chapter here). I like how she disrupts me into having to think carefully about terms I’ve always taken for granted and what hidden baggage (mechanistic or otherwise) they might carry, which is not to say that I will stop using the term, though I am certainly more conscious about how I use it, and how our language can provide powerful clues into the paradigms we’re working from.

SW: The discussion about biomimicry was interesting. I agree it’s a kind of cherry picking / fragmented / limited frame type of mindset. I’m not sure however if I’m with her on the idea that we can’t / shouldn’t think about how to understand and reproduce / partner with natural systems. 

I see the point you were trying to make there, and it may be that she was trying to make her point so clear that it was kind of glossing over some stuff, but I feel that a huge part of the problem we have is that we’ve become separated from nature, and we need to see, recognise and embrace it ..connect with it and understand it on as many levels as possible. I was starting to feel that her philosophical purity there was kind of getting in the way of what I see it as a positive thing. I am also realising more and more that we have to start where people are at / the world is.. But maybe it’s a disconnect with my perception of this and her expression of it.

DP: Yup. It’s taken me a while to understand that Carol is consciously striving to disrupt and destabilise anyone she engages with to sort of liquify their certainty and shock them into a state of noticing and reconsidering old patterns of thinking. I’m pretty sure I have heard her and certainly her colleagues using phrasing pretty darn close to the phrasings re nature that she slammed me on. I suspect the point was as much about making me question my thinking as it was about making the points she made.1 She has done this many times since and I so often end up with an evolution in discernment. Not that it was initially much fun in the moment though I have to say I am starting to quite like it.

Did you see the piece she wrote me about her take on the word nature? It’s worth a read. Incidentally I have heard her say “I never meet people where they are. Ever.” As in she always strives to meet them on the edge of where they are and nourish their evolution from there. For the record in different places I have now heard her say or write that she (with my current understandings of her reasons):

  • never answers questions (because she would prefer to support the asker’s capacity to ask a better question and absolutely does not want to be deferred to as the ‘expert’ in the space – she wants everyone to be/become their own expert)
  • never has anyone evaluate her work (because the last thing she wants those is for she’s working with to outsource responsibility for the work and outcomes to her rather than taking full responsibility themselves)
  • never starts gatherings with individual check ins (because she experiences this as collapsing the energy to the level of the individual and in fact more likely to result in people ‘checking out’ as in becoming less focused on the topic or work at hand)
  • never meets people where they are – ever! (because this lets them relax into old models and thinking patterns – she wants to start disrupting these as early in the engagement as possible by meeting them just outside of where they are then moving along just ahead of them)
  • doesn’t ask people what they want, and if they tell her, mostly ignores it (because what people say they want is so often different to the thing that would most reveal and manifest their essence and potential right now, not to mention being contaminated with however many limiting models and paradigms)
  • skips over what exists (because this can lead to simply tweaking what is rather than discovering totally new possibilities)
  • ignores people’s problems (because if the focus is on solving problems then the best possible outcome is that at the end there is less bad stuff. Carol is all about moving from problems to potential and going back to source material to generating and regenerating new tissue from there)

All of which I am now becoming much more discerning about in my own facilitation and consulting work.

SW: I also like your points about planning and it’s contradictions.. It’s funny how often when I listen to your insights into Permaculture design etc.. I often find that you’re verbalising something that I believe or have worked through but had not really ever thought to verbalise or articulate. 🙂

During my previous life as a film director you come to the understanding that (especially on low budgets) the one thing that won’t actually happen is your plan for the day. But that doesn’t mean you don’t make the best one you can. The script, the shooting order/schedule (with backup/contingency options for bad weather etc) is there almost as an exercise in mental rehearsal / preparation.. it’s a thought experiment of sorts. You come to set knowing what you want to do and why.. so that when the moment arrives you have a clear mind to see the opportunities of the moment in front of you – you’re not searching for what to do, you’ve already ‘lived it’ in your mind once.. and now this time you have that safely in your back pocket should nothing better come along.. but you keep your eyes to the present you find yourself in. I kind of see the ‘design’ as the initial compass bearing in some ways. Regenerative land use can only be regenerative if it’s open to feedback (there’s that word!) from what’s actually happening.. it must be reactive to the processes you’ve set into action. 

But that only is possible (I believe) if you have the knowledge to actually see and understand what is happening in front of you.. and not therefore imposing these patterns. 

It’s like the martial art of Aikido.. you have to spend years and years learning distinct, separate ’techniques’ in a set way, in order to get to the point where you have something called ’technique’. It’s no longer a collection of separate things.. it’s a unified state of mind and a ‘centered-ness’ in the moment where your reflexes and mindset has learned over time to relax and flow with the energy that comes to it.. allowing you to harmonise with it, channel it, without thought.. no conflict. No winners or losers.. just harmony. Bill Mollison only mentioned it once (that i know of) but when he said Permaculture was like “doing Aikido on the landscape” I really connected with that. 

I really liked that point Carol made right towards the end about permaculture designers having an ‘educators role’.. which was what I was thinking when you were talking to her earlier about going on to a client’s property as a designer. It’s not about imposing design I don’t think. it’s about connecting people with knowledge / awareness / understanding.. the “design” or “plan” is a teaching aide, a thought exercise, a way of explaining the connection of landscape and living processes and how the client could potentially live within that.. a snapshot of a possible world.. not a prediction per se. You’re providing a diagram of how the energy flows across landscape and telling a story through it.

Because you are right – you can’t walk off and leave someone with a design they don’t understand and that’s not connected to them, their purpose place, essence etc. Half the job however is getting them looking in the right direction, walking on the right path to acknowledge the things they need to learn more about – ‘knowing what they don’t know’ perhaps.. and connecting the threads for them to follow themselves (hopefully imbued with the beginning of an awareness of how make it work, and as a foundation to build on over time as they see and respond to their own living system). BUT… there is also this other piece of the living landscape, its own emergent expression of life, it can’t be all egocentric and about people.. there is this larger sea of life around our ‘node’ to be felt, appreciated.. certain tides and currents that we must position ourselves in relation to.. 

DP: Beautifully put Shane 🙂

SW: Anyway, that’s enough for now!  😉 Look forward to chatting again sometime. 

The Second Jason Gerhardt Chat

SW: Hey Dan,

I just listened to your MPS episode “Exploring the Role of Maps in Permaculture Design with Jason Gerhardt“and I thought you might find this perspective interesting.

During a previous career, I was a film writer and director. It has provided me with a perspective and some hard-earned lessons that seem to relevant in (sometimes) the most unexpected places. This felt like one of those instances.

In reality, some film scripts take years, YEARS to write, before they’re ready (hopefully) to be ‘made’. But even at this point as a writer/director (auteur), you appreciate that every film gets made three times, with the storytelling taking place in three main phases. First as a screenplay (the result of what you vision), then during production/principle photography – when you actually commit images to film (the result of what you actually do on the day) – then again when you edit it (where you truly ‘create’ the final product people will see). It’s a living process the whole way through, where things go right, go wrong and you have to constantly deal with the unexpected, and control a complex, expensive, finely balanced process enough to avoid catastrophe but not too much that it cuts off oxygen for the magic to happen. But despite all that, you don’t not write a script just because it gets thrown out of the window by the time you get to the editing stage. While technically you can improvise an entire film, there are many reasons why very few actually do it, not least because it’s a collaborative process that can involve many (even hundreds of) people, and the chaos can quickly spiral. So the script becomes not only a process of visioning that’s very valuable, but also communication tool / a rosetta stone to draw focus for better ideas during this ongoing collaboration.

I was thinking how you’re exploring the potential of mapping vs not.. but I wonder if that is actually the KEY distinction between being successful with a map or nailing it without.. 

To me there is a point to be made around mastery here. Going back to the film making analogy / parallel. Every director/writer etc has their own methods. Some storyboard (draw) every shot in the film and try to recreate these perfectly (highly controlled), others barely write dialogue and just free flow it all (fast & loose). Some modify their approach per project and some start with one approach and pare it down over time and evolve towards something different.. why? Firstly because they want different results (a different feel) each time or they are comfortable with different levels of ambiguity… and as they get more and more confident / insightful, they can begin to use short hand a bit.. (like David Holmgren reading a landscape), they can narrow down to the essence. By contrast, someone newer to it needs the scaffolding of the process more to ensure they don’t miss anything important. They need reminding of what’s important, and sign posts for potholes to guide them through the wilderness safely so they can get into the feel of it before heading ‘off the track’ as it were and forging their own path.

So in some ways I see what you’re talking about has having parallels between the age old discussion between scripted dialogue vs improvisation. The improv feels fresh, alive, in the moment, truthful – all great things.. but it has a shadow side and needs a skilled performer to do it well, and a skilled director to facilitate/create/guide the process so that the actors are actually able be in the moment and not be looking at/evaluating themselves (which gets in the way of the true connection to the moment where good improv comes from). When done badly, it can be deflating, aimless, tangential, confused, superficial, boring, lifeless.. same can be said for scripting – done well it can be tight, sharp, incisive, dramatic, poignant, beautiful – but done badly it can be rigid, false, constricting, suffocating, robotic and so on.. so the question is not necessarily whether to script/map or not.. but rather: where on the spectrum is it appropriate to be for this context/project/people and purpose. 

Because the truth is, what ‘feels good’ in the moment is not always the best result. It can just be a signal from the ego. Ask anyone who works with actors.. lol 

It can be a very egocentric philosophy to focus only on that facet, or rather to say that “what feels right” is more authentic than anything else.

Sometimes the rigour of reflection, consideration, analysis, thoughtfulness – letting the seasons of mind and temperament wash over the ‘plan/map/concept’ to reveal and improve things – can be very useful.

These challenges you refer to about how it can go wrong with the plan is exactly the kinds of challenges you get with young filmmakers trying to create something good with limited experience or initial gift for it.. It’s that tension between too much/not enough safety. (Councils/film studios also sometimes need a plan – like you say), but it’s interesting how you can find examples of both approaches being done well/badly, and therefore I think it’s worth prodding a bit to see what’s influencing these different outcomes.

I feel it comes down to this notion that the tool (like you acknowledge) is just a tool, and that the practitioner is really the deciding factor in many ways. The bigger tool might be needed to compensate for a lack of muscle, and a smaller, more delicate tool might be more effective in lighter hands.. but each person may need a different combination to compliment their different skills at different stages etc. – depending on where they are.

DP: Great reflections Shane. Yes! I love having folk draw out the parallels with some other sphere, be it Chinese medicine, sport medicine, dance, or here filmmaking.

So true that a little or a lot of scripting can go bad and you need to adjust the dial between the two as you go.

In this post I tried to share that it is more about attitude (And yeah you could say mastery) than whether or not an actual map is drawn. I love the idea that the details of the process are themselves emerging in real time in a generative fashion, and where no existing tools or techniques are off limits.

Reading this reminds me I often have had the response to my work of “yep sure Dan, we’ll use the existing process understandings/models/recipes as a scaffold to get folk started then later they can fall into the space of generative transformation etc etc”. I remember chatting about this with the wonderful Dave Jacke in this conversation. I totally get there is something in this then another part of me wants to shout out that I know it is totally possible to create new scaffolding that takes people directly toward more living processes such that they don’t need to perform a u-turn when the scaffolding gets removed. Just recently some permaculture educators were saying to me that we can keep teaching folk to do master plans, then let them learn later to change them during implementation. While I do get the idea that planning is essential and valuable (so long as you throw the resulting plan away as soon as it’s done, in the sense that reality remains the master), I see the almost inevitable tendency to become attached to our pretty pictures. I just don’t see the plan leaving the hand even if we try to throw it away – it’s like they get stuck there or something – like there was a bit of glue on the hand at the start it would have been better to wash off first :-).

Anyways thanks for chiming in and being okay with opening this conversation up to the MPS audience!

Adrian Hodgson’s Sketches on Design Process Ecology and Succession

Hey all,

Dan here. Wow I can’t believe six weeks just whizzed by. I did co-facilitate a PDC, attend my second Possibility Lab, worked through a few health issues, and move house, but even still.

I’m currently sort of reeling in the sheer volume of profoundly insightful comments (see here for instance) and private messages that have been coming my way in relation to MPS in the last few weeks. Where one sentiment I have is that much of these ought to be full blown posts.

I’m also still processing what I got from the Ben Haggard chat and from my ongoing engagements with Carol Sanford and others. I have so many great questions to chew on and this joint feeling of wading through thick mist and a deep excitement at the radiant hints and glimpses of living process possibilities and permaculture potentials I sense ahead.

I am working on a post that will summarise where I see myself focusing my energy for the next stretch, which I guess will be most of next year. Can’t wait to share that then launch into fresh expeditions together, where falling deep into the question around permaculture’s originating impulse looms large.

Meantime, actioning the sentiment I started with, I’m going to start sharing some otherwise private messages as posts. Big thanks to Adrian Hodgson from Design Jam Permaculture for letting me share his words and wonderful exploratory sketches here. I look forward to reading your reflections in the comments as well as sharing mine there too.

Adrian’s Initial Email (Nov 30, 2019)

Hi Dan,

I’ve been thinking with great excitement about a lot of what has been explored and shared on this meta level community “development” project of yours (MPS). I needed to put a few of the thoughts that were swimming around in my mind onto paper and so I have drawn up a couple of sketches that I would love to share with you.

One of them is an exploration of the design process as an ecology as inspired by your chats with Dave Jacke (see here and here). This emerged to be conceived of as what it might look like to gaze into the ‘rings’ of the freshly cut permaculture tree.

Another sketch that I made was to try to illustrate the idea of personal development –as getting to one’s singular core– into the idea of a succession of design-process means and expression. I have charted this on a spectrum with one axis representing the continuum of degenerative to regenerative and the other axis representing one’s calling to be a designer to “maturation” and inevitably death.

From here, I am working on what to do with the insights of my sketches and would love to participate in some collegial dialogue around these ideas (as is ongoing with your MPS endeavours of course).

I am currently exploring the notion that living systems may “call” us in as designers –there are ecological precedents for this (ie: corn silk). Were Mollison, Holmgren and Fukuoka generated by the greater living systems they came from?.. hmm, this is far out of my usual territory.. murky waters ahead I suspect. I’m actually quite scared..

On a more down to Earth level, I will also be exploring how to reasonably use the “design process ecology” as a tool (back-breeding it with proceedural generation).. and I have a few thoughts and ideas around how to do that that I am experimenting with. This is based on a theory that I have inferred from “Glantzing” into the tree rings of the coppiced permaculture tree (perhaps a process sucker sprouting from the coppiced stool).. Haha.. it’s all very foggy still and I don’t want to ‘master-plan’ this.. That is why I thought that sharing these ideas with you may be the next best step.

Please let me know if there is a preferred email address that I can send these along to you.

With deep gratitude for the spaces you have been creating,

Adrian Hodgson

Dan’s Reply


Great message! Look forward to replying/engaging properly and in meantime share those sketches, and continue letting beings emerge from the mist / fog :-), and participate in some collegial dialog around these ideas!

I am intrigued and excited by the hints you’ve shared and look forward to continuing the conversation. Maybe you want to submit a guest post or something? Or maybe we have some to-and-fro on email then publish the thread as a post? Let’s see what happens I guess.

For me your message is a continuation of an almost overwhelming flow of brilliant comments and messages in the last week or so. I’m feeling so humbled to be helping hold space for the quality of dialogue that is emerging around MPS and next steps are feeling foggy for me too – though I know whatever emerges from here is going to be beautiful.


ps. Oh and I like this metaphor continuation of gazing into the rings, each ring a year of permaculture’s growth since inception. Where this focus Ben Haggard helped me refine on the originating impulse is going right back to that little pith in the core then tracing it back down to the moment of germination and the forces at play that contributed where, as you say, maybe living systems of the world were like, “okay we better call in some fresh flavours here, for shit is getting out of control!” 🙂

Adrian’s Sketches

Hey Dan,

Glad to hear that you are intrigued. I’d love to keep the conversation going and am not opposed to our commencement here being posted as a thread.

Here is an invitation to look at the sketches I made. If you need a different format just let me know.

To be honest, the tree ring thought only came up later after I drew the one sketch and was gazing into it.. the thought emerged.. and needs much more exploration. I am not much experienced at tracking formally.. but did like the idea of “glantzing” (a nod to Joel) into the rings.. where as you had described David Holmgren doing to image/aspect/inspect/sidespect etc. the depths of a place.. Tree rings can tell a lot about a story.. though I was also envisioning something kind of like ‘Dumbledor’ gazing into his ‘pensieve’.

Happy tracking. Chat more soon!

Ben Haggard on Potential and Development in Permaculture and Beyond (E30)

In our first ever conversation, Ben Haggard of Regenesis Group shares his history with and perspective on permaculture.

This episode catalysed waves of reflection that are blowing my mind.

Yes, I was struck with the profound clarity and depth of what Ben shared.

Then the sheer resonance of the relevance to exactly where Making Permaculture Stronger is at – well that pretty much knocked me off my seat. You could say I’m still climbing back up off the floor :-).

I don’t know about you, dear listener/reader, but I have the real sense that this conversation is itself a nodal intervention in Making Permaculture Stronger’s ongoing evolution.

It is like I can feel the energy shifting and growing and generatively transforming throughout my entire being and hence the being of this project. New levels of Will are awakening.

I mean I use the terms potential and development (who doesn’t) and before this chat I would have said I had a fairly clear, coherent grasp on what they are. Not any more. I was almost dazzled by the clarity Ben gives these terms in a way that resonates deep in my bones. Then, when he spoke about the idea of permaculture’s originating impulse, well, game over. Let me pen a few reflections on each.


After decades of experience and reflection in collaboration with a tight-knit community of practice, Ben has reached a fascinating perspective on what potential is. As I understand him, he sees the potential (or the possible contribution) of something as existing in the tension between that thing’s deep, enduring, inherent character and the ever-changing reality of the context in which it is nested and in particular what this context calls for in this particular “historical and evolutionary moment.”

To identify the potential of a farm, a garden, a person, a family, a business, an organisation, a blog project, we need to ask:

  1. what is the unique character of this being? then
  2. what is currently called for in the immediate, local, and greater wholes it is nested within?, and
  3. what could happen here that would harmonise these two things?

Which brings us to…


Clearly, potential often remains latent. For Ben, development is then the practice of actually revealing and manifesting the potential inherent in something, which involves removing anything in the way and becoming more and more relevant and valuable to context.

Originating Impulse

When Ben first mentioned this phrase late in our chat, I knew immediately it was going to inform my very next steps with Making Permaculture Stronger. So take this as a sneak preview where I’d invite you to start sitting in the space of this all-important question: what was permaculture’s originating impulse? Please don’t rush – take your time with this – there will be space to chime in with what arises for you very soon.

One thing here I’d invite if you come across any sound bites or text that speaks of this originating impulse to you, especially if from the early days of permaculture, please send it through to me and I may well include it in the upcoming post.

Other Notable Threads

  • what Ben said about permaculture’s usual initiation/conversion experiences and how these can make it very difficult to bring the ideas into one’s existing ways of working I think was well worth further exploration. I mention it here as a reminder to come back to this in future as appropriate. Any thoughts?
  • This idea of the word place as a rare world in English in that it includes people, landscape etc etc…
  • the idea that if you can be with a person or other living entity as it is, you are taking it as whole (as opposed to our default pattern of fragmenting things by paying attention to their various attributes)

Links to Stuff Ben is involved in

Ben on Place