Permaculture and the Importance of Landscape Design

As more and more people learn about the problems that industrial agriculture (and industrial civilization in general) have caused the world, there is a growing interest in all things organic. From larger organic sections at your grocery store to the explosion of the local food movement with farmer’s markets and community supported agriculture programs, organic livelihoods are on the rise.

When it comes to actually growing your own food in a sustainable and ecologically healthy manner, however, it takes much more than just a little bit of compost. The importance of learning how to read the landscape and discover what elements belong and can fit into the overall functioning of the system is an essential part of sustainable living on the land. Permaculture is one of the most helpful tools to help us learn how to best design our livelihoods to the land.

The Lack of Natural Design in Modern-Day Society

Our modern-day society has very little consideration for design, at least any sort of design that takes into account the realities of the natural world. We have grown to believe that as humans, our ultimate purpose is to bring the natural world under our control and make it work for us.
The natural world, when we do see it, is relegated to “wilderness” areas that can be found in national parks. We vacation to see the world as it is, but the rest of the time want the world to conform to our needs and desires. Some people blame this separation between the human and his or her natural surrounding on the Industrial Revolution and our new-found ability to use fossil fuels to help along our inner desire for growth and dominion over the natural world.

As technology has developed over time, we have increasingly lost contact with the natural rhythms of the natural world. If you ask any stranger street what mood we are in, they will probably give you a quizzical look. Most elementary school students will be able to identify hundreds of corporate logos and brands, but can´t tell the difference between an oak tree and an elm tree. Technology has isolated us from the world around us in two ways. Firstly, it removes us from any sort of proximity with the natural world. We wake up in the morning not to the sound of birds, but to an alarm clock playing our chosen music. Though it may be snowing outside, we walk around our house barefoot and in pajamas thanks to the wonders of central heating. Afraid to brave the cold for even a moment, we push a button from inside our house to start up our car and get it heated before we begin our drive to work.

Secondly, technology has effectively erased the ebb and flow of the seasons. A trip to the local grocery store won´t show you in-season and out of season produce. We can get fresh strawberries in the dead of winter and enjoy bananas year-round thanks to a food system dependent on long transportation and cheap wage labor in Mexico and around the world. Permaculture is an attempt to put the natural world back into the equation, to understand that any human economy exists within a larger economy that includes the birds, the soil, the rain, and the aquifers. In essence, the process of permacultural design is to help humanity rediscover the original meaning of economy (oikonomia) as the “ordering of the household.” Our household includes the place we live, the creatures we share it with, and the balance and equilibrium that our lives must conform to if we are to continue to exist as a species that shares this only world of ours.

Nature as Measure

Permaculture design begins with simply being present in place and slowly getting a feel for what that place will allow one to do. Whereas most “development” in modern day society takes place behind an architect’s desk or in the mind of some agronomist, permaculture urges people to begin by actually spending time in the place where you live. Observing the rhythms of the natural world that we have been taught to forget and seeing patterns emerge from the natural functioning of the world itself are the most important parts of any ecological design. This only happens by accepting a physical proximity and intimacy with our places and learning that Nature should be the measure of our success.

As we relearn these patterns and rhythms, it should become obvious to us that our lives and livelihoods need to conform to the natural functioning of the place. No longer should we consider ourselves to be the epitome of evolution with a divine right to impose our will wherever we go, but rather learn to limit aspects of our livelihood. The idea of finding freedom and belonging through natural limitations is almost a heresy. People who do make the decision to live simply and respectfully of their places are seen to be “wasting” their lives and their talents. For people who do attempt to discover the simplicity of living within natural limits, however, they also find natural opportunities that are many times hidden from the sight of people whose vision is always on the horizon and not on the ground beneath them.

The Science of Design: An Example

On a practical level, living close to the land can help one discover the opportunities that the modern, industrial mind simply cannot see. In rural Kentucky, the son of a wealthy businessman inherited five acres of forest in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. His father had kept the land as a reminder of his humble beginnings, but his son could only see it as an antiquated place of backwardness and poverty. As soon as he could, he sold the land and invested his time and money in other ventures.

The small farmer who bought the forest was considering clearing the land to grow tobacco, but while wandering through the forest, he found morel mushrooms growing wild throughout the forest floor. He invested a small amount of money in mushroom spawn, thinned the forest for logs, and began an extremely profitable gourmet mushroom business that maintained the forest ecosystem healthily intact while at the same time providing for himself and his family.

The small farmer’s observation of the natural world and his ability to listen to what the forest offered helped him design a livelihood that respected the boundaries and limits of that place while also reaping the benefits of the opportunities that were naturally present. Had he blindly followed his initial anthropocentric idea of knocking over the forest to grow tobacco, the forest ecosystem would have been lost and he almost certainly would have encountered financial ruin as the tobacco industry plummeted shortly after his purchase of the forest.

The Importance of Design

Of the many different contributions that the permaculture movement has offered to folks interested in living more sustainably, the focus on permaculture as a design process is perhaps the most relevant. Learning to observe the natural world, accept Nature as a measure with the limitations and opportunities that are inherently present in each and every place, and design our livelihoods according to this reality is an indispensable part of living correctly on the land.

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