Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Prophetic Patterning Part 1

Amidst the unusually cold temperatures, sandwiched between long periods of heavy rainfall, I have been spending a considerable amount of time indoors near the warmth of the wood stove.  Winter is a good time to catch up on studies, and I've taken the opportunity to read and study more of Bill Mollison's Permaculture: A Designer's Manual. I had originally borrowed a copy from a friend, then after returning it, have been using a PDF copy I had downloaded some time ago. I still have not finished it, it is so densely packed with technical information, charts, illustrations, Mollison's intuitive creativity, all packaged together in a strange mix of science and ancient, indigenous wisdom.

The subject that so far has been most difficult for me to grasp is that of "Patterns". It has never been clear to me, even after completing my PDC and listening to and reading numerous other permaculture practitioners, how exactly to translate the theory into practical applications. Other than increasing edge by using branches and crenellations instead of straight lines (because more energy is exchanged, more diversity and activity occurs where two edges meet), or simply copying shapes found in Nature, like spirals, because we are supposed to copy Nature, etc., etc., I was not comprehending the significance, the science and intuition, which I felt must be there. There was something more, something amazing, massive, a veritable frontier of possibility, but finding a trail through such a wilderness was daunting and confusing.
photo by TreeYo Permaculture
So I climbed up Mt. Sinai to sit again at the guru's feet, and like Moses, was enfolded in a cloud of contemplation. The experience bordered on the ecstatic. I caught a glimpse, as it were, of the universe inside Mollison's mind. I was drawn to contemplate everything at once, and felt the dizzying, spiraling of time and space contained inside and folding in and in upon itself and out and out everywhere, all in one place at one time, all times, forever expanding and always contained in the smallest seed.

"Everything gardens." was his phrase to relay how everything plays a part in the whole of life. "Everything is story." was the theme of my first and recent presentation on design process and landscape literacy. But that experience, and the role of patterns in permaculture and life in general, perhaps could best be contained in the words, "Everything dances." Indeed, it is exactly this, the ecstatic, ancient concept of perichoresis, the interconnected dance of all things, and the deep, deep longing, sorrowful and joyful, of the world that could be. The world we groan to give birth to, hoping against odds, against the walls and weapons and flags that divide us, the fences and prickly hedges and the fear of touching one another....

....But I am exhausted mentally, and ready to climb down and enjoy the simple things. I hope to not simply be a collector of exotic intellectual experiences, but to plunge my hands into warm, spring soil, and eat what it gives me. Soon, I hope. The cold and wet cannot last forever. In the mean time, I have thought of a few interesting applications to all this pattern stuff. I'm hoping to be part of a pattern renaissance of sorts, where the application of such things is both a way to increase yield and an art form, at the same time, together in a mutually beneficial, boosting process.

To begin with, a little history.

But although these patterns are observed and found in Nature, they are never perfect, only approximate. And this is important to keep in mind. Mollison writes, "A bird's-eye view of centralised and disempowered societies will reveal a strictly rectilinear network of streets, farms, and property boundaries. It is as though we have patterned the earth to suit our survey instruments rather than to serve human or environmental needs. We cannot perhaps blame Euclid for this, but we can blame his followers. The straight-line patterns that result prevent most sensible landscape planning strategies and result in neither an aesthetically nor functionally satisfactory landscape or streetscape." Euclidean geometry has been a tool of empires, pyramids, forced patterns, social stratifications and the elitism that seeks to purge and purify uncleanness and irregularity. We can look back in history to see where that leads. The theologian, Walter Brueggemann, in The Prophetic Imagination calls this "the royal consciousness".*

This next special picks up where the last one leaves off, with Benoit Mandelbrot's game changing discoveries of fractals.

How can this be applied to permaculture? I think the key is proportion. Everything, the universe included, is assembled into general proportions which are self similar all the way down to the tiniest bits. These proportions are also patterns in time. Everything that grows or expands branches out again and again at regular intervals and appropriate times.

Along with proportion is the lowly and beautiful ideal of prudence. Not prudishly prudent, but a balanced existence based upon one's space in the world, and the spaces built around that which are no more and no less than what is required to live a full and healthy life. This can apply to individuals, their homes, and human villages. There is a lovely proportion, a golden ratio, that can be a guide to determining prudent sizes and spaces.

One particularly lovely shape that is highly valued in permaculture design is a spiral. The spiral of a nautilus, as was seen in the first video, generally follows a Fibonacci sequence and the golden spiral in its' growth pattern.

photo by Chris73

The diagram below reveals how this is the case. 

graphic by Luiz Real

A practical application that comes to mind, is in the permaculture concept of zones. Zones are a method in permaculture design of assembling elements (gardens, livestock, orchards, woodlots) according to the frequency of visits needed to care for them. So zone 1 is right outside the kitchen door and contains the kitchen garden, maybe a poultry area bordering that, while zone 2 is for larger gardens, livestock, etc. that require slightly fewer frequencies of visits, and so on. The proportions of the golden rectangles forming the spiral, then, could become a guide for arranging these zones, the spiral itself cutting a gentle, flowing path through the whole farm or garden. Then, as in the shell above, the areas closest to the origin would be more intensively managed and could be intersected by secondary arc-like walkways. Add in some branching keyhole shaped path endings, and more planting areas could be accessed without sacrificing as much growing space to walkways.

What about plant placement? As in the documentary above, natural plant communities, like rainforests, reflect the same, descending order, both in their branching patterns and in the distribution and frequency of their sizes. So when we assemble our guilds (more about them here), instead of just using units of measurement, we could experiment with using proportions from Nature. 

The possibilities are virtually limitless. But I think the key to connecting theory to practice is the concept of prudent proportion, both for maximum efficiency of energy exchange and use, as well as maximum aesthetics. I am walking around now, eyes wide open, all senses, all nerves alert, to recognize and delight in the unfolding of this new frontier in design, wherever it may surface.

Good soil and peaceful proportions to you all!

*For a liberating treatment of the Bible as a struggle between the religion of creation and the religion of empire, see Wes Howard-Brooks' Come Out, My People.


  1. I love this so much. And it is beautifully written. Thank you for sharing some of your wise and adventurous heart. I am inspired...I want to grow all the things!