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!