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Decoding Pattern

by Adrian Buckley

The modern-day education system is almost entirely bent on creating an army of university professors and other specialists. We have been systematically trained to specialize, and as a result we approach problem-solving by studying parts of a whole, where the connections between them are commonly ignored.

We’ve all likely been seeing the headlines these days about the floodwaters in southern Alberta. Flooding is almost always an indicator of deforestation. Forests provide for water storage and use, and moderate runoff from large rain events. Think about what would happen if you were to pour a bucket of water on a sidewalk. You would get a short-lived flood of water to the storm drain. But if you took that same bucket of water and poured on a vegetated area, you would have noticed that the water is retained, and only a small but steady spring of water will dribble out once saturated. Through destructive monoculture agriculture, we are systematically patterning Alberta like a sidewalk.

We have trained ourselves to work amongst each other as individuals, and we approach design and solve problems by addressing the parts. This has led to conflict, instability, and awkward and dysfunctional designs. Pattern is the connections and relationships between things. Understanding pattern helps us get to the root cause of challenges and guides the way to creating lasting human settlements that produce for the needs of people, while harmonizing with ecology.

A pattern is essentially an ordered arrangement of objects or events in time or in space. Everything from numeric sequences, cloud formations to economic boom and busts are all great examples of patterns.

Everything in nature is defined by a limited set of patterns! All of us have the power to understand the seemingly infinite complexity of the world around us through pattern understanding. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by huge environmental, social and economic problems, whether it’s about finding an ethical line of meaningful work, cleaning up a river system, or everything in between. The good news is that all the systems where these issues might lie (whether environmental, social, economic, or whatever) are all defined by these common sets of patterns. By understanding the world through how these patterns work, you can quickly start figuring out how to get started on addressing challenges and put your positive energy to work!

Every pattern we see has an associated message attached to it. Many patterns are sign posts of events that are going to happen. Yet other patterns are indicators of underlying and past conditions that are responsible for present conditions and events. The more we understand and decode the messages embedded in patterns, the more we can find effective solutions to problems, and create designs that harmonize with ecology. Pattern is central to design, and design is the topic of permaculture.

Here’s the best news of all: you already know just as much as I do about pattern! Humans as a species have highly evolved pattern recognition skills. Just observe any child and you’ll see it. All we have to do is dig back into our minds and start re-embracing this ancient ability.

Patterns are both predictive and postdictive

Plants that have evolved to grow in compacted and carbon-deficient soils commonly have tap roots. This kind of root in effect is a slow-motion pickaxe that breaks up the soil, allowing water and air to get in. When the plant reaches the end of its life cycle, the root itself decomposes into a rich column of compost, adding carbon to the soil. Whenever you see this kind of plant, you know right away which technique ecology is using to repair itself, as compacted carbon-poor soils are commonly those heavily disturbed by industry.

We all know that when we see a big white cloud that looks bubbly on top with a dark bottom that we should take shelter from impending rain. We know this and yet we don’t need a degree in meteorology! We all seem to associate that particular cloud pattern with storms. By seeing this particular cloud pattern, we can make a fairly accurate prediction about what the weather conditions will be in the near future and base choices around that. Pattern in predictive in that it help you understand upcoming and associated events that precede other indicative events.

Here’s another simple example: Let’s say you have a team member who’s always late. When doing planning, you’ll likely be figuring that person’s chronic lateness into the plan. This seems very obvious, but I say it because it’s a clear example of how we make sense of things by understanding pattern.

Now think about the dandelions growing in a section of your yard that you want to turn into a garden. Dandelions are a type of plant that have tap roots, which effectively break up compacted soil. Chances are really high that wherever you see dandelions, they are indicating an area of compacted soil. In essence, dandelions are a response to soil compaction. So the appearance of dandelions gives you a lot of clues to the past use of the land, and insight on how to go about repairing it. For example, densely seeding beneficial plants like daikon radish, which have well-developed taproots, will quickly break up areas of soil compaction and return life to the soil. So pattern understanding is postdictive, in that many patterns you see are in fact responses to particular conditions.

Here’s another example: think about chronic traffic delays. Is it just an indicator of too much traffic and we should widen the roads? Or is it postdictive indicator that our communities are shaped in such a way that we cannot meet our needs on our properties anymore and must drive to distant locations to fulfill them?

Fairy circles, as shown here, are tufts of extra vigorous grass commonly seen on lawns. Certain kinds of fungal mycelium function in a beneficial relationship with plants. While the plant provides sugars and starches for the mycelium, the mycelium harvests and transports minerals back to the plant’s roots from great distances. The grass in the fairy circle is visible evidence of this exchange at work.

Perhaps the best way to get started with pattern recognition is through observation. Careful observation can lead to a lot of information about the meaning of pattern. For example, a past permaculture student had parents running a blueberry farm in Nova Scotia. The problem they were facing was all sorts of competing plants growing in between the blueberry bushes, stealing their nutrients and sunlight. The parents dealt with this problem through herbicides, but the student was concerned about the application of these chemicals. Blueberries thrive in the wild in Nova Scotia. So she decided to go out into the wild to see how the native blueberries were doing it. She quickly found that blueberries thrived in acidic and fungal-based soils. Back at her parents’ farm, the soil was everything but this, and those herbicides kept killing more biology in the soil, which was more bacterial in nature. Many of the competing plants in her parents’ farm thrived in bacterial soils.

So there was the solution right in front of her eyes! The student knew then that in order to solve the competitive plant and herbicide problem, she had to take the wild blueberry soil pattern and bring it to her parents’ blueberry farm. She had to change her soil from being basic on the pH scale and bacterially dominant to acidic and fungal dominant, so that her blueberries would thrive, and those competing plants would not. She observed a pattern in nature and applied it to the design of her parents’ blueberry farm!

Here’s another example: I went out walking the other other day on a roadside in Calgary. The road stretched through open parkland. On the side of the road were numerous leguminous plants: all sorts of cow vetch, alfalfa, and yellow sweet clover. The pattern of the sweet clover was particularly interesting. It only grew directly on the edge of the roadside and didn’t grow further into the field next to the road where the vetch, alfalfa and grass was growing. So I went on the internet for some possible reasons why. After a short search, I found that yellow clover favours nitrogen-deficient soils that are alkaline. This is important because having information about your soil is key to understanding how you will go about designing your garden to building better topsoil. But I’ve just saved myself lots of money on soil testing just by observing the particular pattern of yellow clover as a soil quality indicator.

Pattern as a means to design

The herb spiral is a design inspired by nature and coined by Bill Mollison. The spiral is the most efficient way of storing things and saving space. The herb spiral can fit a large amount of growing bedding in a compact structure that is easy to fit outside your kitchen door. By understanding the advantages of the spiral, the herb spiral not only offers space-saving, but also provides a variety of habitat in one space for different kinds of herbs!

There is no coincidence that just about everything you see in the world (and beyond) is patterned in a certain way. Ecology has evolved to become the best engineer on the planet, with billions of years of experience on its resume. Just about all resource, planning and engineering challenges have been solved by ecology. Whenever we have to employ fossil fuels and lots of human labour to something, chances are really good that the design is wrong. If we pattern our designs correctly, the work needed is provided by components of the design itself, just as we saw in the blueberry example above. We need only to look to ecology as our teacher when redesigning human settlements, because all the answers of good design can be found there!

Think of pattern as another word for design. Whether we are designing our lives, our businesses or our gardens, we are in effect patterning them. As I mentioned above, patterning is the ordered arrangement of objects or events in time or space. A pattern emerges when two or more things are in some kind of meaningful connection with one another. For example, if I’m the owner of a cafe, I need fresh food for my sandwiches. I have a nice piece of land out back that has a lot of solar gain, so I’m going to provide that land for a community garden and greenhouse in exchange for fresh produce. Both parties benefit, and this will lead to the design of this community. You’ll find that everything in nature is arranged in two-way partnerships; ecology is inherently designed on cooperation and not competition.

This is Part 1 of 2 of Decoding Pattern. Stay tuned next month for Part 2, where you’ll learn about one general pattern model that explains and puts into perspective just about everything you see on this planet. You’ll never see everything around you the same again after you read Part 2!


  1. As humanity begins interconnecting their knowledge and focus on comprehending how they connect to the natural world, there will be an instant improvement in the quality of life for all living beings.

  2. Thank you for these practical examples of how to read patterns in our environments! We surely need to reintroduce these skills in our everyday thinking:

    “But, by contrast, in the early phases of industrial society which we have experienced recently, the pattern languages die.

    Instead of being widely shared, the pattern languages which determine how a town gets made become specialized and private. Roads are built by highway engineers; buildings by architects; parks by planners; hospitals by hospital consultants; schools by educational specialists; gardens by gardeners; tract housing by developers.

    The people of the town themselves know hardly any of the languages which these specialists use. And if they want to find out what these languages contain, they can’t, because it is considered professional expertise. The professionals guard their language jealously to make themselves indispensable.

    Even within any profession, professional jealousy keeps people from sharing their pattern languages. Architects, like shefs, jealously guard their recipes, so that they can maintain unique style to sell.

    The languages start out to being specialized and hidden from the people; and then within the specialties, the languages become more private still, and hidden from another, and fragmented.”

    The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander, page 231 – 232.

    “As I mentioned above, patterning is the ordered arrangement of objects or events in time or space. A pattern emerges when two or more things are in some kind of meaningful connection with one another.”

    The absolutely opposite and contrary of pattern thinking is SECTORIALISM, which is the dominant factor in today’s society:

    “The sectorial system of administration is able to achieve extreme results within limited sectors – it can follow its own agenda, strive for maximum benefits without any consideration for other sectors, and without interference from anybody else from outside the aim that is set up for the limited sector. Transcend all geographical boundaries and give room for companies to fit into any local government administration and community for exploiting resources.”


    How could it be that we created such life destroying systems? The historical background for our misery is explained by Christopher Alexander in his book The Phenomenon of Life:

    “The mechanistic idea of order can be traced to Descartes, around 1640. His idea was: if you want to know how something works, you can find it out by pretending that it is a machine. You completely isolate the thing you are interested in – the rolling of a ball, the falling of an apple, the flowing of the blood in the human body – from everything else, and you invent a mechanical model, a mental toy, which obeys certain rules, and which will then replicate the behavior of the thing. It was because of this kind of Cartesian thought that one was able to find out how things work in a modern sense.

    However, the crucial thing which Descartes understood very well, but which we most often forget, is that this process is only a method. This business of isolating things, breaking them into fragments, and of making machinelike pictures (or models) of how things work, is not how reality actually is. It is a convenient mental exercise, something we do to reality, in order to understand it.

    Descartes himself clearly understood his procedure as a mental trick. He was a religious person who would have been terrified to find out that people in the 20th century began to think that reality itself is actually like this. But in the years since Descartes lived, as his idea gathered momentum, and people found out that you really could find out how the bloodstream works, or how the stars are born, by seeing them as machines – and after people had used the idea to find out almost everything mechanical about the world from the 17th century to the 20th century, people shifted into a new mental state that began treating reality as if this mechanical picture really were the nature of things, as if everything really were a machine.

    For the purpose of discussion, in what follows, I shall refer to this as the 20th century mechanistic viewpoint. The appearance of this 20th century mechanistic view had tremendous consequences, both devastating for artists. The first was that the “I” went out of world picture. The picture of the world as a machine doesn’t have an “I” in it. The “I” , what it means to be a person, the inner experience of being a person, just isn’t part of this picture. Of course it is still there in our experience. But it isn’t part of the picture we have of how things are. So what happens? How can you make something which have no “I” in it, when the whole process of making anything comes from the “I”? The process of trying to be an artist in a world which has no sensible notion of “I” and no natural way that the personal inner life can be part of the picture of things – leaves the art of building as a vacuum. You just cannot make sense of it.

    The second devastating thing that happened with the onset of the 20th century mechanistic world-picture was that clear understanding of value went out of the world. The picture of the world we have from physics, because it is built only out of mental machines, no longer has any definite feeling of value in it: value has become sidelined as a matter of opinion, not intrinsic to the nature of the world at all.

    And with these two developments, the idea of order fell apart. The mechanistic idea tells us very little about the deep order we feel intuitively to be in the world. Yet it is this deep order which is our main concern.”

    From The Phenomenon of Life, first book in The Nature of Order series by Christopher Alexander, page 16.


    How happy I am that Permaculture has arisen in the world, so that we can create new, SHARED pattern languages, to heal OUR world!

  3. amen to that!

    all of the greatest philosophers and scientists studied everything, not just a single dicipline.

    some friends parents who own about 10 acres recently cleared a whole lot of land of the dense bush that was providing habitat for birds etc and was simply a beautiful area. they are wondering why their driveway is now a mud pit this winter (i’m assuming they will now have major drought problems this summer).
    i tried to explain to them the simple cause and effect but their eyes just glazed over. they unfortunately turned a whole lot of high grade timber (eucalyptus, cedar, douglas fir, manuka, black wattle etc) into fire wood, then paid for low grade pine to build an extension onto their house.
    can’t teach old dogs new tricks.

  4. I came to think about that the decoding of patterns is the foundation of permaculture. When Bill Mollison created Permaculture it was after years of studying natural systems and decoding nature’s patterns, and from these studies he got the idea of Permaculture. Permaculture is about decoding existing patterns, reintroducing forgotten patterns and creating new patterns, which all have the one purpose to set humans and the natural world in harmony with each other.

    See this article:

    This is the difference between Permaculture aid projects and other aid projects. Alex here uses a lot of energy to observe and understand the patterns of the land, nature, culture and history, before implementing any new design. In contrary to the specialists from the UN or the World Bank, who force alien and standardized systems upon the place and people, doing more damage than repair.

    This is why I this morning set up a list of what you should claim from an aid project before you support it:

    1. The project is using time and energy in observing the patterns of place, nature, culture, community and history. This must be done in cooperation with the native people they are intended to help.

    2. The project is paying a lot of respect to the patterns of place, nature, culture, community and history, being very careful not to disturb any of these patterns, and that any new systems of design will enrich and strengthen the existing patterns.

    3. The project leader must be skilled / experienced in decoding and implementing patterns.

    If a project cannot meet these three criteria, don’t invest your time and money in it.

  5. “You’ll find that everything in nature is arranged in two-way partnerships; ecology is inherently designed on cooperation and not competition.”

    And so is Permaculture too!

    “Bill: No, anarchy would suggest you’re not cooperating. Permaculture is urging complete cooperation between each other and every other thing, animate and inanimate. You can’t cooperate by knocking something about or bossing it or forcing it to do things. You won’t get cooperation out of a hierarchical system. You get enforced directions from the top, and nothing I know of can run like that. I think the world would function extremely well with millions of little cooperative groups, all in relation to each other.”


  6. Just imagine what the patterns of our society would be like if permaculture development and food production was the norm everywhere.

  7. “We have trained ourselves to work amongst each other as individuals”


    “The basic element is to get people out of committing social relationships – out of the tribe, of the village, of the family and out of the marriage – only in such a situation is the system able to manipulate you in any direction. And that’s what it’s all is about.”


  8. Here are some examples of patterns that can solve the traffical problems in such a way that we might even be able to narrow the roads:

    – Scattered Work:

    – Web of Public Transportation:

    – Network of Learning:

    – Market of Many Shops:

    – Bike Paths and Racks:

    – Corner Grocery:

    – Vegetable Garden:

  9. I love anything on patterns. I use “Language of the goddess” by Marija Gambutas on a weekly basis – the patterns of old europe are understandable today as instructive and predictive patterned information – well worth a look for the pattern fiends out there :)

  10. Where is part two? A quick search in google under “part 2 decoding pattern & permaculture” didn’t bring up Decoding Pattern part 2. Thank you

  11. Hi Adrian, I’m also looking for part 2. I’ve searched this site, and the web under your name – nothing! If you’ve written it, please email it to me. Thanks Audrey

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