Permaculture Principles: Observe and Interact

I’ve been learning about permaculture this year. In order to deepen my knowledge and understanding of permaculture and make connections with my faith and theology, I am going to work through the Twelve Permaculture design principles articulated by David Holmgren in his Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond SustainabilityHere is the first principle:

  1. Observe and interact: By taking time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.

This principle is probably the hardest one to practice for me. Like many others, especially from the dominant culture in North America, I tend to see my role, value and worth wrapped in what I do, what I can accomplish. So, once I have learned about a concept or idea the next step is to go out and do it. I have a hard time just being and observing the world around me. I assume that I already know and therefore the thing to do is to act, not sit still.

This first and fundamental principle therefore is very counter to many of us in this culture. Like apophatic theology, the primary assumption is that we do NOT know. Even those among us who have learned a great deal about plants, agriculture and ecology do not know and understand the land the way that those who lived and live today close to the earth do. We are all beginners and it would do us all well to confess that and start from a place of ignorance.

This doesn’t mean that we ignore what little knowledge we do have. Rather it means that we approach the question of how to live and design systems that are in harmony with natural systems with an appropriate amount of humility. As much as we can learn from books and the wisdom of those that have gone before, there is no substitute for your own experience and observation. The journey toward sustainability, much like the journey of faith, is one that you must walk yourself. You certainly need to walk the journey with others, but no one else can do it for you.

Sitting and observing the land puts us in a timescale that makes modern humans very uncomfortable. I have a hard time sitting still for more than 5 minutes much less an hour of meditation. Yet, this principle is calling us to be still and watch over the length of seasons. You cannot observe the way that nature works in an afternoon. In other words, this principle should become a way of life and something you practice on an ongoing basis. Ecosystems are dynamic and especially in light of climate change they are continually changing and adapting. Your observations 10 years ago may not be as relevant today.

If what we are trying to do in permaculture design is learn from nature how to do things in ways that are more sustainable and work with rather than against nature, then we must change our way of thinking. We must become students of nature and allow nature to become our teacher. This came naturally to those who lived off the land and worked the land. They had an intimacy and knowledge that we lack. We must work at it if we hope to avoid the pitfalls of thinking that comes from a disconnection and detachment from the land.

The other thing that’s difficult for many of us is finding a good place where we can really observe nature. I agree that humans are part of nature, but this kind of observation is more helpful if we see what happens without our constant intervention. It teaches us how nature functions with minimal intervention from us and how we can mimic what nature does without us mucking about. Most of us don’t have 3-5 acres where we can go sit and observe wild places over the seasons. Where I live we have a large urban park and a man made lake that can serve as good places for observation. There are also lots of folks that have some land outside of town where I could go more regularly. Those times of observation are important, but it’s just as important to observe the particular plot of land (even an urban lot) to understand it better over the years and seasons.

It might feel unproductive and uncomfortable at first, but it’s essential to good permaculture. Maybe journaling will help you. A friend of mine recommended a practice of going and sitting somewhere and just writing down 100 observations no matter how seemingly small or insignificant. Honing our skills of observation will tike time, patience and practice.

So, grab a chair and get busy doing nothing.

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