Reading nature’s book is what permaculture is all about.
— Toby Hemenway

If humans are ever going to live sustainably on this planet, we simply cannot continue thinking that sustainability is something we must engineer.
— Paula Hay

Permaculture has progressed from offering another way to farm and garden to providing a toolkit for those who dream of designing entire human ecologies — habitats and food production — that have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems. But the wonderful world of permaculture embodies one glaring omission. Imitation of nature, universally urged, is not extended far enough.

“Observe what happens in nature and then imitate it; adapt strategies that have already evolved,” writes Bill Mollison. Instead of fighting mama nature or trying to control her, we follow her lead. After all, she has a very long track record of nurturing life — 3.8 billion years, to be exact. We are surrounded by evolutionary success; the sustainable world we long for already exists all around us. Tapping into nature’s wisdom must surely underlie any efforts at embodying wisdom in human undertakings.

Let us then apply this excellent advice while reflecting on our toolkit itself. What makes natural ecosystems work in terms of design? We humans have barely scratched the surface in our effort to understand. But we know there is no designer or planner overseeing a pond, moving the tadpoles and reeds to and fro, no micromanager of the thicket, directing the blackberries here and the dog rose there. Yet permaculturists behave as though they are imitating that interventionist God insisted upon by evangelical Christians.

Does nature design ecosystems via blueprints and future-to-present impositions? Does it envision a billion years ahead, then implement? Does nature take a burnt-over meadow and shape it according to a plan? Perish the thought. Lifelong nature observation leads me to be confident in asserting that nature emerges and evolves ecosystems by paying attention to present needs and opportunities, that it works piecemeal rather than in grand designs, and that it relies on co-adaptations of all living creatures to one another in a dance whose result cannot be predicted.

“Permaculture looks for the patterns embedded in our natural world as inspirations for designing solutions to the many challenges we are presented today,” says Jan Martin Bang in his deeply informed-by-experience Eco-villages book. Is the time ripe for permaculture to shift its attention to the meta-level, and pattern its design process itself on the natural world? I would love to see us extend our admiration for and mimicry of nature’s ingenious design to her way of designing as well.

I proffer here a few thoughts regarding what some useful permadesign guiding lights might be. My own understanding of permaculture is small, local and unfinished; barely begun. So I hereby point to an inviting edge where creative forces play and wait for more of us humans to join them.

How then does nature design?

  • Nature focuses on the never-ending journey, rather than on the destination. She does not set goals, but rather goes forth in iterative steps. Experiencing the journey itself is part of what guides the process.
  • Nature works in “trial & error” spirals, loops, zero-waste cycles. The quintessential spiral herb garden serves as a reminder of the spiral cycles underlying creation. When we humans create in the presence of uncertainty, it is these flowing and ongoingly-unfolding spirals that lead us from within.
  • Nature unfolds the future from the present, from what is-here-now. It is from this very moment that future arises, not from projections and plans. The present moment holds within it the seed of emergence.
  • Nature self-organizes from initial conditions. Self-organization is a term bandied about a great deal nowadays, but few people seem to know what it means. Software designers build in snippets of evolving adaptations into “God’s view” designs and call it self-organization. Leaving it to the “artificial life” crowd seems fraught with risk; only when we grow the understanding and practice of self-organization within real life, our life, we make it our own.
  • Nature moves from wholeness to wholeness. To cherish the land means cherishing it now, as it is, despite its woundedness. After all, even land that has been abused pulses with its own life, its own living logic, its tenacious wholeness, its integrity. To go in with blueprints, chainsaws and bulldozers, ripping up wholesale ‘what is’, to be replaced by our willful design… — isn’t that yet another wound, this one in the name of healing? Nature teaches that “wholeness is always formed by a special process in which new structure emerges directly out of existing structures, in a way which preserves the old structure, and therefore makes the new harmonious.
  • Nature uses the small and slow — gradual, tiny increments, not comprehensive designs. As Christopher Alexander has observed, “living structures always arise slowly, by successive transformations of what exists, gradually, gradually….” From many small steps, surprising new structures emerge. Might growing a very local and slowly maturing relationship with the land serve life better than installing a comprehensive design, no matter how seemingly benign?
  • Nature exhibits entropy-defying directionality. Mysterious, it is, this directionality that does not project the ideal future first, but somehow arises in tandem with the very first steps taken.
  • Nature plants seeds, then lets them grow to see what happens.
  • Nature oscillates between periods of stability where organisms get a chance to evolve and come into their own, and periods of high stress when less resilient organisms get weeded out or diminished.
  • In nature, everybody’s a designer — the hedgehog or the possum, the apple and the oak tree, the mallow and the slime mold, along with the human who lives nearby. Animals, plants, and microbes have found what works, what is appropriate, and most important, what lasts here on Earth. An ecosystem is a community of co-designers, colleagues. There is no master designer telling the others what to do.
  • Nature’s designers all evolve in response to each other; co-adaptation is one of the aspects of self-organization and proceeds via cycles of mutual responsiveness. “Design is adaptive only when it is done in steps, and each step accepts feedback from the existing structure.
  • Nature’s designers mimic each other’s evolved patterns. As moths mimic the eyes of a bird for protection from predators, so humans mimic the sophistication of a leaf when inventing a better solar cell. And life’s principles show the way: build from the bottom up, self-assemble, optimize rather than maximize, use free energy, cross-pollinate, embrace diversity, adapt and evolve, use life-friendly materials and processes, engage in symbiotic relationships, and enhance the biosphere. What surrounds us is the secret to survival.

I am resisting at this point the urge to speculate further or to sally forth with pithy, half-baked advice. That would surely go against the spirit of what I have written so far. The next steps will emerge from a community of collaborators, people who are animated by the need to extend permadesign in a more processual direction, using bottom-up, biological metaphors. So I will restrain myself! and tell a story instead. Let it illuminate the words I have summoned to express what is a-borning inside me.

There was once a woman who invited permies to her urban yard for a class. They presented the family with several attractive designs, and she chose one to implement at considerable effort and expense. When all was said and done, she discovered that the reality in her garden was completely out of touch with the reality of her small children who tripped over vegetable beds and crushed the hapless cabbages. Eventually, most of the garden was ripped out to bring back the lawn. Will the family give permaculture designers another chance? Will the land?

Once again, I end with the words of Christopher Alexander. [To see the larger passage containing this quote, go to this German forum and scroll down.]

The 20th-century mainstream view of building was goal-oriented and mechanistic, aimed mainly at end-results, not on the inner good of processes. Building was viewed as a necessary way to achieve a certain end-result. The design drawn by the architect – the master plan drawn by the planner – was the purpose, these were the goals of the art. The process of getting to the goal was thought to be of little importance in itself, except insofar as it attained (or failed to attain) the desired goal.

The mechanistic view of architecture we have learned to accept in our era is crippled by this overly-simple, goal-oriented approach. In the mechanistic view of architecture we think mainly of design as the desired end-state of a building, and far too little of the way or process of making a building as something inherently beautiful in itself. But, most important of all, the background underpinning of this goal-oriented view – a static world almost without process – just is not a truthful picture. As a conception of the world, it roundly fails to describe things as they are. It exerts a crippling effect on our view of architecture and planning because it fails to be true to ordinary, everyday fact. For in fact, everything is constantly changing, growing, evolving. The human body is changing. Trees bear leaves, and the leaves fall. The road cracks. People’s lives change from week to week. The building moves with wind and rain and movement of the earth. Buildings and streets and gardens are modified constantly while they are inhabited, sometimes improved, sometimes destroyed. Towns are created as a cooperative flow caused by hundreds, even millions, of people over time.

Why is this process-view essential? Because the ideals of “design,” the … drawing of the imaginary future, the … watercolor perspective of the future end-state, control our conception of what must be done – yet they bear no relation to the actual nature, or problems, or possibilities, of a living environment. And they are socially backward, since they necessarily diminish people’s involvement in the continuous creation of their world.