Designer as recliner (defining permaculture…)

IMG_5965 This week I’m working on my confirmation presentation: a 15-20 minute ‘lecture’ I will be giving in about two-weeks’ time to my USC peers, supervisors, faculty, the Office of Research and any one else who wants to come along (do you?). The presentation will be a summary of my proposed research, including methods and methodologies, relevant literature, significance and innovation and the nature and purpose of the creative artefact.

Note: ‘Confirmation’ (in terms of higher degree research (HDR) does not entail donning white or attending church. It’s a process whereby a ‘probationary’ candidate becomes a fully-fledged (‘confirmed’) candidate. After completing one’s ‘confirmation’ the researcher gets the red, orange or green light from the Office of Research in regard completing their research. Confirmation takes place one-year after commencement for full-time candidates, or two-years for part-time candidates.

I’m anxious about providing my audience – early on in the presentation – with a simple definition of permaculture. The definition of permaculture with which I provided my audience this week during a test-run was Bill Mollison’s classic definition of permaculture from Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual:

Permaculture (permanent agriculture) is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.  Mollison, B 2012, Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual, Tagari Publications: Sisters Creek, Tasmania, p. ix.

Earlier today I was reading Eric Toensmeier’s Paradise Lot and came across this definition of permaculture, which I like:

Meeting human needs while improving ecosystem health. Ferguson in Toensmeier, E 2013, Paradise Lot, Chelsea Green Publishing: White River Junction, Vermont, p. 3.

How simple is that! Here’s another:

Permaculture is a design system for creating sustainable human environments.’ Mollison, B & Slay, R M  2011, Introduction to Permaculture, Tagari Publications, Sisters Creek, Tasmania, p. 1.

In Paradise Lot (a fun, enthusiast permaculture memoir that’s well worth a squizz) Toensmeier explains permaculture thusly:

Permaculture (short for “permanent agriculture” or “permanent culture”) is a movement that began in Australia in the 1970s. It brings together traditional indigenous land management practices, ecological design, and sustainable practices to create landscapes that are more than the sum of their parts. Permaculture is not so much about having a greenhouse, chickens, and an annual vegetable garden as it is about how those elements are tied together to create functional interconnections that work like a natural ecosystem. Low maintenance is the holy grail of permaculture – a food forest with a hammock hidden beneath fruit trees, where, as permaculture codeveloper Bill Mollison famously quipped, “the designer turns into the recliner. (Toensmeier, E 2013, Paradise Lot, Chelsea Green Publishing: White River Junction, Vermont, p. 2)

Recently, in my own life, the permaculture designers (me and Richie) turned into permaculture recliners. Here’s a picture of Richie chilling-out in a hammock during a recent camping trip to Booloumba Creek, Kenilworth. IMG_3317 Seeing Richie hanging out got me thinking how little of this we’ve done lately. And yet, hanging out, observing nature (I include self, relationships and culture in my understanding of ‘nature’) is an essential part of the process of ‘doing’ permaculture.

Permaculture is based on the philosophy of ‘working with, rather than against, nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless action’ (Mollison 2012, p. ix).

In other words, permaculture is about stopping, slowing down, overriding the tendency toward rash judgments or harsh criticism and observing what is truly going on around us: what patterns are present; how various parts (of our lives, or a particular ecosystem – both apply) are functioning: in harmony or opposition?

During my Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) I was taught by my mentor, Richard Perkins to refrain from intervening rashly in natural systems. In permaculture there is an understanding that ecosystems ‘self-regulate’. If a permaculture designer wishes to intervene, he or she need first ask his/herself: ‘what’s the bare minimum I need to do? How can I perform the smallest action for the maximum possible effect?

Lying in the hammock beside Richie I found myself pausing, letting the book I was reading fall to my chest, and  looking up into the forest canopy above my head. My eyes were drawn by movement. Above me, two birds hopped from branch to branch, calling-and-responding to one another as they flittered and darted mid-air. The birds were gorgeous: underbellies the colour of jaffas, faces black. Spectacled monarchs I think?

monarch.spectacled The longer I lay there, watching, the more the details of the surrounding forest began to emerge. Slowly, I began to perceive the complexity of the relationships between the plants: a polyculture of creeping groundcovers, shrubs, emergent palms, a climax canopy of figs, and the draping, interconnections of vines. On the ground a thick layer of leaf-mould had accrued. A little way off, a bush-turkey (they’re good at composteing – no matter what anyone has to say against them) stirred the leaves, pecking with its beak for insects. All around the musky bassnote of fungi wafted.

I lay so long that the pattern of light filtering through the canopy changed. Sunlight began to creep upward from my knees to my waist, and from my waist to my neck and eventually my eyes, until I had to duck my head like a boxer to avoid the glare. As the sun’s rays hit my face the two spectacled monarchs I had been watching – was still watching – were joined, not far off, in the same tree, by another two spectacled monarchs and then by a Lewin’s honeyeater.

If I’d stayed lying there longer I might have witnessed what became of the complex rituals of attraction and repulsion being performed by the monarchs. Longer than that, and I might have seen the fruits borne by the avocado tree beside our tent drop to the ground or else eaten by flying foxes.

Needless to say, I’m not that patient.

After about forty minutes of stillness and observation I swung my legs up over the side of the hammock and brought my feet down to rest on the ground below the hammock. I stood up, dizzy, and gingerly made my way across the open ground in front of the tent, down three stone steps, over the sun-bleached pebbles toward the creek until I was standing, feet submerged, in a flowing stream of clear clear water. Standing there, immersed, I felt I had gained some degree of insight, small, though I admit it was, into the ecosystem into which I had entered. IMG_6127 Acquiring ecological knowledge through a practice of observing and interacting is a method well-known and long-practiced by indigenous peoples. It’s what parents (the astute ones) teach their children. It’s a method employed by anthropologists and by permaculturists too: who, I am  beginning to realise, are themselves a particular breed of anthropologist (see Veteto and Lockyer’s article on for more on permaculture’s affinities with environmental anthropology).

I feel better, in myself, these days, about the partial and subjective nature of what I (think I) know. I tend not to hunger, as much as I once did, to comprehend EVERYTHING. Nor do I value being able to neatly explain events and phenomenon. I have a greater faith than I used to in what I sense intuitively and what I discover for myself through lived experience. I’m more comfortable than I used to be with uncertainty.

Permaculture, like meditation, is an empirical practice, a process. That process starts with learning how to ‘Observe and Interact’ – the 1st design principle of permaculture. And continues, for the rest of our lives, with a continuation of that process of learning to observe and interact.

What I have observed so far about the confirmation process is that it is long, slow, sometimes tiresome: that it has forced me to radically re-consider what I’m attempting to achieve through my research, and what outcomes I would like to generate.

The philosophy I wish to exemplify in my creative artefact – the permaculture-travel memoir that I am writing as part of my Doctoral research in Creative Arts (Creative Writing) – is permaculture’s philosophy of ‘working with, rather than against, nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless action’.

Says Bill Molliosn in his autobiography, Travels in Dreams:

I am of the opinion that we may never know the function or nature of even a single cell, let alone of a leaf, a tree, a forest. Perhaps we cannot know that of which we are just a part. Can the part know the whole? Or (as Heisenberg suspected), do we fail in the very act of finding out. But, we may know something of form, a little of patterns; even enough to know that no thing is ever identical to another, nor any thing repeatable; we are destroying the myths of the arrogant sciences, and gradually accepting that we may not be able to know ‘exactly’, nor control at all in the ultimate. Mollison, B 1996, Travels in Dreams, Tagari Publications, Tyalgum, Australia, p. 699.

To me this is a comforting thought. Embrace uncertainty. Or as Ewan McGregor’s character says in Trainspotting, ‘choose life!’

Note: Feel free to write-in and comment on what you’ve ‘observed and interacted’ with this week: feelings, people, places, non-human animals, plants, tastes, smells or sounds, or if you’ve seen a spectacled monarch. Beautiful, aren’t they!


Filed under Books, Doctoral Research, Earth Care, Permaculture, Philosophy, Writing

5 responses to “Designer as recliner (defining permaculture…)

  1. Thanks for this, Nina!

  2. christina doratis

    Hi Nina
    I enjoyed the interweaving of permaculture theory with your own life and observations and I can see better how this blog can be part of your research.

  3. Mary Gartrell

    Dear Nina, How precisely and exquisitely expressed in your usual amazing descriptive manner of writing. A delightful read my brilliant grand- daughter. Congratulations! Love Nan X

  4. Nell

    Reading some montessori literarure today, I was also reflecting on the need to observe before acting (in this case, in ways that affect a small person). A lesson to feel one’s way through again and again, the dance between being and doing. Sometimes awkward, often frustrating, always enlightening. Besides that, I have been watching our cassava grow into trees. I’m sure we should do something about that. Thanks for the beautiful read Nina. X x

  5. Holly

    I am such a novice in the permaculture world Sis but you continue to enlighten me 🙂 thank you xx

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