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.

Dan

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!

  1. For the record I shared this with Carol who replied with the following clarification: “BTW, I never offer disruptive ideas I don’t belief in just for destabilization. I don’t value the role of Devil’s advocate  because that is just mischief. So any idea I offer that you are disrupted by is something I offer for you to explore not just as a tool to get you to think. I am using a different paradigm to see what I see that differs from what you just said a moment before and invite you to examine it with all rigor and seriousness.”

7 Comments

  1. Oh, my. So much going on here!

    On Carol, disruption is certainly what we need. It takes an event and energy to make change. Change is by definition something different.

    One thing different about movies and landscapes is that movies trend towards the linear, while landscapes have a linear path but also a depth and breadth too. And, the design path of a movie in this example is 3x, a landscape has all of our efforts, plus the efforts of each and every one of the beings in it.

    What would a design process look like if it was not linear? How would would we hold a vision of the whole? What if we don’t even hold that vision but take direction? Makes me think of the telescope vs. the microscope.

    What would a design process be like if it was 100% co-creative?

    How do we get out of the way of our own performance?

    I have been inspired by this video on counter mapping: https://youtu.be/U7DQmTjpFI0

  2. My first take is similar to Meg’s. Will I read it a second time? Maybe. All those “Nevers” are confronting. Which seems to be the intention. But I don’t find Carol is bringing new or useful stuff for me, and as Dan says at one point, contradicting herself sometimes. If she is so much into disruption, could be useful for some/many. But so much of my permie-related conversations with so many skilled and competent change agents have been along these lines already. So perhaps I’m needing exactly what I’m reading in the MPS blog 🙂 [smile] Multipl re-inventions of the wheel may be what we need to change business as ususl.

  3. Oh it’s all making me tired and confused. Maybe it’s the fires. Maybe it’s my lack of an academic education. So many complex ideas.

    I read it. Shook my head. Went for a walk. Came back and read it again. I think it’s all moved to a place that I struggle to understand, and perhaps that’s the point. I’m past my edge and out into the land beyond, but far from making me feel energised and inspired it has left me feeling confused and overwhelmed. I find a small, chewable chunk:

    “….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)”

    Okay, this one sort of resonates with some thinking I’ve been doing around client interviews and the ongoing discussion about whether we should do them before or after site and sector. It occurred to me recently that starting with client’s wishes/visions/dreams/desires/needs is about as anthropocentric as it gets. Finally I have clear reasoning for wanting to learn all I can about the site first, and to determine what the earth needs in this particular location. I also think this process should include the client in a kind of ‘allow me to introduce you to this land’ kind of way and I’m redesigning our coaching model to do this. I’m hopeful that this will shift them from wish list thinking to genuine connection with place and a deep desire to cooperate with nature rather than impose human will upon it.

    So I get not asking people what they want. And also the idea that goal setting can be limited by our current thinking (my latest blog post includes thoughts on this topic) but I am sorry to say the rest is beyond me. I might circle back again later and see if I can do better.

    Happy New Year Dan and thank you for all of the amazing and wonderful conversations, blog posts and deep thinking. You’re an inspiration.

    PS: recaptcha is still glitching 😀

    1. Okay, I just followed the link to Carol’s take on nature and on loving people and seeing their potential and I’m feeling much better. Loved it. Yes.
      If we only work with those that agree with us and share our perspective and our values, then we are disconnected, the opposite of what we are hoping to achieve. To love ALL people is one of the great challenges.

      Sorry, I seem to have posted my previous comment twice! Feel free to delete the other one.

  4. Oh it’s all making me tired and confused. Maybe it’s the fires. Maybe it’s my lack of an academic education. So many complex ideas.

    I read it. Shook my head. Went for a walk. Came back and read it again. I think it’s all moved to a place that I struggle to understand, and perhaps that’s the point. I’m past my edge and out into the land beyond, but far from making me feel energised and inspired it has left me feeling confused and overwhelmed. I find a small, chewable chunk:

    “….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)”

    Okay, this one sort of resonates with some thinking I’ve been doing around client interviews and the ongoing discussion about whether we should do them before or after site and sector. It occurred to me recently that starting with client’s wishes/visions/dreams/desires/needs is about as anthropocentric as it gets. Finally I have clear reasoning for wanting to learn all I can about the site first, and to determine what the earth needs in this particular location. I also think this process should include the client in a kind of ‘allow me to introduce you to this land’ kind of way and I’m redesigning our coaching model to do this. I’m hopeful that this will shift them from wish list thinking to genuine connection with place and a deep desire to cooperate with nature rather than impose human will upon it.

    So I get not asking people what they want. And also the idea that goal setting can be limited by our current thinking (my latest blog post includes thoughts on this topic) but I am sorry to say the rest is beyond me. I might circle back again later and see if I can do better.

    Happy New Year Dan and thank you for all of the amazing and wonderful conversations, blog posts and deep thinking. You’re an inspiration.

  5. I appreciate the ongoing attention to these topics. I still feel there has to be a successional process to generative transformation or to living through a different paradigm or anything that differs from where one is currently, but I’m sincerely sitting and practicing design with it and seeing what comes up. I have no final answer. One thing that keeps coming up in regard to the “to map or not to map” dichotomy is the map in my consciousness. I think that’s the crux of the matter whether I draw it on paper/screen, lay it out with bales, bricks, stakes and flags, or never articulate it materially before grabbing a shovel or directing an excavator operator. The question I’ve been most deeply with is, ‘so what’s the difference if it all comes through consciousness?’ I think the crux is HOW we are using our consciousness (and therefore how anyone working with us is using their consciousness), which is what I think Shane was getting at with “mastery” (or attitude). For example, HOW does one actually distinguish between whether one is interpreting or observing, or projecting or being more authentically present? My best insight here is that we need to start teaching about consciousness in Permaculture. The curriculum is fairly comprehensive about how so many things work and how we work with those things, but has very little to offer about how WE work, and further, hasn’t been giving us the tools to continually be aware of ourselves working. Design is just decision making, and that is conscious action. Consciousness, then, seems like a most important place to start. It’s where I will be starting the discussion of design process with my upcoming PDC. In fact, I will be weaving it through the whole course. We’ll see what comes out. (I know, I know, Bill Mollison is rolling in his grave screaming ‘NO WOO WOO!’ Sorry, buddy, but it’s all consciousness, and that ain’t no woo woo.)

    1. “I think the crux is HOW we are using our consciousness (and therefore how anyone working with us is using their consciousness), which is what I think Shane was getting at with “mastery” (or attitude). For example, HOW does one actually distinguish between whether one is interpreting or observing, or projecting or being more authentically present?”
      Exactly! 🙂
      It’s the ‘talking with’ rather than ‘talking to’ (the landscape) distinction..
      I’m trying to tease out this idea alongside Dan that if we aren’t conscious of our own role in the process and mindful of what we bring with us (hopes, agendas, patterns, expectations and & assumptions) then we start doing things TO the land again (which is what got us into this mess), and disconnect us from the reality of where we are – as many of us are not able to benefit from generations of deep local knowledge of our particular landscape any more – so gigging designers and those newer to it are starting from scratch (sort of) on each new site.
      If we go too far back into how we ‘feel’ (unquestioningly) about any element/plan etc, then it becomes much more of an ego-driven exercise where ‘the customer (us/the client) are always right’ and we repeat the mistakes again.
      All of this takes time, practice and self-awareness of where we are on our learning journeys etc – hence the mastery bit. You stumble and/or succeed enough and you get better at reading the signs and sensing which paths to take and so on. In the balance of ‘what the land/person wants’ – Bill leaned towards the land, and I kind of sympathise.
      For too long we’ve been imposing patterns, and it’s a hard habit to break. Even when we try to be better and walk the sustainable path, it’s all too common to see people fresh to Permaculture design instinctively do this (herb spirals, swales, hugelmounds anyone? lol), clinging to stamping familiar tropes, and therefore this idea of making sure we understand how we work and why we’re making choices is important.

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