Read any manual, permaculture included, and there will be a slew of jargon through which we must sort. Subject specialists tend to speak in a language very difficult for others to understand, not necessarily because they are trying to exclude novices but perhaps because the topic and its vocabulary have become so commonplace to them.
While permaculture definitely has its own terminology (swales on contour, hugelkultur, nitrogen-fixing, etc.), the idea behind the practice, what has made it so popular, is that it is something quite simple: People should unselfishly act in ways that support the environment and their fellow humans. The question, then, of course, is how to do that.
How we go about that is the crux of what permaculture is. In essence, it’s a design approach for making the world sustainable for both nature and us, who inextricably rely on the survival of natural systems. This is the hard-fast rule, and beyond that, it’s getting into the right mindset for reaching this goal, to which there are many routes and facets. Here’s how one might start.
Permaculturists tend to look back at traditional ways for doing things more sustainably, but the value of technology isn’t discounted as a wash either. Rather, permaculture looks to use new information to improve old methodologies rather than simply discounting them. For example, with the internet, we can compile ages of wisdom about any given plant or quickly access DIY instructions for building a simple solar power system. This enables us to gain understanding, tips, and warnings from experienced people, learning from experts the way apprentices once did.
Look for Sensible Cycles
Nature tends to work in cycles. Plants grow. They drop leaves and seeds, and some of them even die. The leaves and dead plants decompose to create rich soil. The seeds sprout in the beautiful, moist soil to make new plants. It all happens again as the system feeds and maintains itself. We have to think of how to mimic this type of security. Composting is a great example for a human system: Food grows. We put food waste into compost. The compost enriches the soil, which was slightly depleted from the last crop, so we can grow more food. Chemical fertilizers aren’t part of this cycle. What we learn from nature, our best guide to sustainability can be put to use in our processes.
Convenience tends to be confused with efficiency. Fast food can be on the table, from a consumer’s standpoint, much quicker, but that doesn’t mean it’s efficient. We eat more calories of low-nutrient food in search of what our bodies need. That has health costs, which eat up time with illness and earning the money required to pay for treating said illnesses. And, “convenience” foods were produced with chemicals, packaging, gasoline, and destruction. Now, we have to clean up rivers, maintain waste systems, extract more oil, and struggle with global warming. This isn’t efficient. We expend much more energy maintaining this system than the energy we gain from it. The cycle here isn’t built on efficiency. It’s built on industry, which thrives when we “need” and use more.
Designs tend to be holistic in permaculture. The idea is to look at how an entire system interacts, and this is usually to the benefit of the system and the people managing it. For example, an apple tree will hopefully, at a minimum, provide apples. In the right place, it might provide shade for a house in the summer, reducing the cost of cooling it. In the winter, when it loses its leaves, it might allow sunshine into the same house, reducing the cost of heating it. The same tree could provide shelter for a bench, it could be part of a mutually beneficial guild of other productive plants, and it could soak up gray water from the kitchen sink, bathtub, and washing machine (used responsibly with biodegradable products). Put it on the other side of the house, it might not do any of these things. Holistic thinking makes for efficient designs.
Observe, Assess, and Adjust
As important as any other part of permaculture is realizing it doesn’t always go right. Even experts make mistakes, cycles sometimes fail, efficiency can always be improved, and holistic designs can have additions and subtractions. Good permaculturists realize that it won’t all be right the first time, and what’s right at first might not be right all of the time. They constantly observe their designs, assess how things are doing, and adjust, using that new information to make systems better. This, of course, leads us back to learning humbly, a cycle we have to adopt in order to make efficient use of the whole of what we are doing.
When asked about how to deal with slugs in a garden, Bill Mollison, one of the founders of permaculture, is famously quoted as saying: “You don’t have a slug problem, you have a duck deficiency.” In other words, in permaculture, we try to make our problems into solutions, and that often means approaching them in practical ways that harken back to simple natural processes rather than moving away from them.
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