Illustration: Cecilia Macaulay
Aesthetic: a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste and with the creation and appreciation of beauty. — Merriam-Webster
Since the permaculture design process, or any design process, is influenced by the designer’s personal values, we need to assess our aesthetic defaults. We need to critically examine and reevaluate why we act the way we do and how decisions and choices are made. We see more with our eyes through the aesthetic filter of our culture than through our innate organic vision. We appreciate great beauty in the natural world that we do not incorporate in our controlled living space because we have learned a separation between that world and our personal space defines us as “superior or civilized”. How we perceive beauty, which is the learned cultural aesthetic, conflicts and causes stress in the permaculture design process.
In serious ecological design, I believe, we need to redirect our vision to the functional aesthetic of natural systems. In the design process we must follow all the steps in the scale of permanence and apply our design process in a manner that redefines our personal aesthetic to a more natural expectation. Using a structure of decision-making, from large-scale patterns to details as they are justified, does this. Following an organic design process allows us to discover the design solutions rather than impose them.
In order to do ecological design in a sustainable manner we follow a functional aesthetic as nature does. What we perceive as beauty in nature is the functional anesthetic that is the result of billions of choices as solutions to efficiency and fitness of living organisms. These patterns that repeat in our vision show us the most efficient use of space, resources, transportation of resources, and resilience. Organism fitness is directly related to its ability to thrive in its niche. Each cell, each genetic mutation, either increases or decreases the fitness of the affected organism. The simplicity of design for the most efficient use of space, resources, and structural resilience, must also be sufficient to allow the system to survive changes in a niche, be they as in our world, climactic, geological, meteorological, or through competition with other systems.
When we as Permaculture designers begin to read the land, we want to make sure that we are being imprinted by the land so that our design is not imprinted (forced) on the land. That is why the assessment process, in site-assessment, cannot be motivated by extraction of resources. We are only looking for available resources that we may enhance, restore, and integrate in a design that will increase the fitness of the land and its ability to buffer extreme events, which may deplete its resources. Within the boundaries of the property for which we are making a master plan, we are the new genetic code. We are like a virus in its most positive sense. We as ecological designers can supply a “new genetic code” bringing increased resilience to a property. We can help the land restore itself to natural fertility. We can assist the land in developing deeper and richer organic material on its horizon. As stated in many permaculture articles, we accelerate succession. We must see ourselves as a steward of the land, not its master. By increasing the ecological services available to the natural systems we create increased resources for ourselves. We are the primary livestock in this natural system, yet as the stewards of this land we know that if we were to vacate the property, the natural systems will be more resilient, deeper in organic materials, and at a higher state of natural restoration than if we had never appeared. There will be increased diversity of flora and fauna and increased levels of complexity in the ecology.
The biggest challenge we have in ecological design is refraining from imprinting our personal, cultural, and economic aesthetic on natural systems that already exist. We ourselves are imprinted by our culture to create personal space that follows the cultural aesthetic of our origin. It is not hard to imagine the design of a house built by a consumerist suburban American. It is also not hard to imagine how that design would change based on the native origin of the designer. That subconscious design driver, which infiltrates are ecological design, is most likely contrary to natural ecological design. This is the predetermined aesthetic that is subtly incorporated in our concepts. As we walk an undisturbed property, we can see the natural aesthetic of ecological systems, mostly in what we would call Permaculture Zone 5. The natural aesthetic or beauty is the functional design of natural systems. As we move down the zones to Zone 4, Zone 3, Zone 2, and Zone 1, we can see the cultural design choices appear and begin to negatively effect ecological services. The greatest challenge we have is trying to adapt the predetermined economic and cultural design drivers (defaults) to our goal of a natural design (intention) based on enhancing ecological services rather than our economic and lifestyle preferences.
So here’s what it all boils down to. In nature and in every ecological system, nutrients continually cycle through the system. When the system is disturbed, for a short amount of time the cycling of nutrients may be diverted, but essentially they continue to cycle through organisms, plants, and organic material. We get everything we need for our trophic level from every other level. Our waste is then released to the organisms that decompose and metabolize the compounds to nutrients that are then recycled into the system once again. All we have to do is develop ecological cycles by placing the components in a relative location and create a healthy ecology. A beautiful sight.