Friday, October 16, 2009

Take Chapter Two...Please

Chapter Two of Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual is hanging me up. The title is “Concepts and Themes in Design." The problem is I can't say what it's about in a sentence.

There’s a joke about speed reading: “I took the Evelyn Wood Speed reading course, and read War and Peace in three minutes. It’s about Russia.” Or, “A lady went to see Hamlet. They asked her if she liked it, and she said, ‘Not really. It was just a bunch of quotes’.”

I might say that Chapter Two is about yield. This is the chapter that introduces the idea that the more you can cycle energy within your system, the more you can increase your yield. For instance, composting your kitchen scraps returns energy to your soil and to your vegetables. Add bees, and increase pollination, then harvest honey. Mollison says that yield is only limited by our knowledge and imagination (and I infer from this how little knowledge -- and maybe imagination -- I have).

The permaculture strategy increases the number of niches in which we can get a yield, because it increases a place’s surface area: Instead of thinking about a place like a map, a flat area, we think of it as something in three dimensions, and realize that there are niches above the ground. We can trellis grapes on trees, and grow shrubs, herbs, mushrooms, and animals under the canopy. Mark Shepard says that we can get twenty-five percent more ethanol from apples than we can from corn, and we can pasture cattle in the orchard, because we aren’t worried about fecal coliform bacteria’s contaminating a non-food crop. Permaculture also increases the number of cycles. Mollison says a cycle is a “niche in time,” because one critter is at one place all the time, but never over there. This critter is everywhere in the spring, another is everywhere in the summer, and so on. So the designer needs to recognize -- and create -- niches and cycles, and fill them.

But it takes five sections before we get to that discussion, and there's a lot more after. The introductory section is very abstract, too. Mollison speaks here regretfully about the absence of taboo and myth in western society. He says, “ never having the time or common sense to evolve new or current guiding directives, we have forgotten how to evolve self-regulating systems.” He again mentions Lovelock and the Gaia Hypothesis, reminding us that Life maintains equilibrium, and if we threaten equilibrium, we’d better stand back. He outlines aboriginal myth as traditional "guiding directive": Willful act, Transmutation (Lot’s wife), Invocation of elemental force (the Flood), Atonement. Mollison says that we have replaced this with “fixed prohibitions” that are entirely about how we treat other people, never referring to our natural context. “Immutable rules” don’t apply in life or permaculture design. This isn’t license; what we have now is license, and it doesn’t work. We need “flexible principles and directives.” We need to pay attention.

There is a lot more to this chapter. It’s rich in anecdote and aphorism. The point is to increase yield within the context of a planet that “less and less appears to behave like a material assembly, and more and more appears to act as a thought process."

Today's illustration is the right-hand side of a page of notes I took at a Permaculture Design seminar in 2007. Just to the left of the browsers was a hard-to-see drawing of a woolly mammoth. One way to design is to find analogies for what would have been on a site way back.

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