Permaculture design can be about much more than deciding where to put plants and landscaping particular sites. Indeed, many people who practice permaculture do not have a piece of land in which they can create a design. We can utilise permaculture to help with design of our finances, time management, social structures, or a myraid other applications (see for example 1, 2); and indeed as I have said in previous articles, a permaculture perspective can help in many aspects of life, from problem-solving to conflict resolution (3, 4). Yet whatever way we decide to use a permaculture lens to help us in designs of all kinds, we can be greatly aided or gravely hindered by one thing: communication. This article will explore a little about how it can help to visualise communication as a type of energy that, in permaculture style, we can block, enhance or redirect.
Working with energy flows
One key to using permaculture design or a permaculture perspective in a less physical way than designing an actual piece of land is to work with the concept of energy flows. When you make a design of a place, it is usually recommended to do a ‘Sector Analysis’ (see for example 5) of all the different things flowing into and out of your chosen system. Once you know what these energies are, you can find efficient and effective ways of incorporating them into your design.
Such energies are usually things like water, sunlight angles, wind direction and speed, and other natural phenomena. A detailed permaculture design should also include the access ways or habitual paths of the humans and animals that pass through or regularly use the space. When they are all mapped out it can be easy to choose how to work with such energies. However, there is also the hugely important aspect of human interaction and relationships that cannot be neatly mapped. These add an element of chaos and a different energy that if neglected, could lead to failure in all else.
Permaculture as a design approach is human-centred, not because humans are more important than the other beings in the world, but because we must start with ourselves. Yet sorting out the human elements can be the most difficult part of a design process and because they are less easy to predict and they are perhaps less reported on. Stephen Brooks, a PDC teacher in Costa Rica, says this of what he calls the “invisible dimension” of human interaction;
“The physical side of permaculture we pretty much have down; but maintaining the ‘egosystem’…I think that’s a really important aspect.” (6)
Language as magic
This so-called ‘egosystem’ can be seen as the way in which we connect to each other through communication. The connections are subtle, and sometimes confusing. Language is a technology we have been using for millenia; R. Buckminster Fuller calls language “the first human technology” (7). In many ways language enables us to make messages clearer; though our ability to use and twist words can also hinder this. In this way language can be seen as less direct than non-verbal communication; whether this is between humans or other beings around us. For example,if we put chemicals into water, the water shows signs that it is polluted; a clear communication (though many do not heed its implications). Becoming sensitive to direct communication from trees, air,
waterways and other phenomena could help us to be sensitive to what other humans are communicating as well.
Words can be plain and direct but they can also so often be confusing, intentionally or unintentionally misleading, and linked to a complex web of emotional responses that can be difficult to untangle. One reason for this confusion is what David Abram speaks of as being the ‘spell’ of phonetic language; the way in which, by creating words that are abstracted from physical phenomena, we have removed ourselves from the natural world and therefore can believe there is some kind of separation between us and it, or between us and each other, or ourselves.
What to do about language
In Abram’s 1996 work The Spell of the Sensuous (8), he likens the way in which we use words to abstract ourselves from nature to a kind of magic. He argues that we cannot solve the world’s problems until we have begun to release ourselves from this ‘spell’ by becoming more conscious of how we use language and communication, and eventually change our habits to more fully engage in the ‘animate landscape’ which constantly surrounds and informs us even if we forget it is doing so. In a previous article (9) I quoted Abram’s exploration of many indigenous cultures’ perspective of the air around us as a living, breathing, changing medium. Such a viewpoint could be vastly important in helping us to relate to our environment in healthier ways. Following on from the idea that we can engage with the air, not as dead or empty space but as a living entity much like a river or series of waterways, we can check whether or not our communications are healthy flows within this entity, and alter them accordingly.
It is important to note that this article is not suggesting specific types of communication or specific words to use. Everyone communicates in their own way, and whatever works for you may not for others. In visualising our communications with those around us as energy flows, we could find ways to optimise these communications, and thus more fully engage with the ecosystem at large.
In part 2, I will suggest some possible constructive ways to put this into practice.
1. Murray, H, 2018. ‘Permaculture Economics’. https://hedvigmurray.wordpress.com/permaculture-diploma/economics-my-personal-finances/ – retrieved 20/5/18
2. Macnamara, L, 2012. People and Permaculture: Caring and Designing for Ourselves, Each Other and the Planet. Permanent Publications: Hampshire, UK
3. Ashwanden, C, 2015. ‘Human Permaculture: Looking at Migration as Flow to Solve Problems’. Permaculture News, 11/9/15. https://pmnlive.wpengine.com/2015/09/11/human-permaculture-looking-at-migration-as-flow-to-solve-problems/ – retrieved 20/5/18
4. Ashwanden, C, 2018. ‘Permaculture as Philosophy: How to Apply ‘Turning Problems into Solutions’ in Real Life’. Permaculture News, 8/3/17. https://pmnlive.wpengine.com/2017/08/03/permaculture-philosophy-apply-turning-problems-solutions-real-life/ – retrieved 20/5/18
5. Howe, M, 2017. ‘How to Use Sector Analysis in Permaculture Design’. Fantastic Farms, 7/6/17. https://small-farm-permaculture-and-sustainable-living.com/permaculture_sectors/ – retrieved 20/5/18
6. Films for Action, 2011. ‘Permaculture in Costa Rica’. https://www.filmsforaction.org/watch/permaculture-documentary-costa-rica/ – retrieved 20/5/18
7. Fuller, RB; Kuromiya, K, 1981. Critical Path. St. Martin’s Press: London, UK
8. Abram, D, 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous. Random House: New York
9. Ashwanden, C, 2015. ‘The Invisible Dimension: Suggestions for How to Relate to the Air We Breathe’. Permaculture News, 3/8/15. https://pmnlive.wpengine.com/2015/08/03/the-invisible-dimension-suggestions-for-how-to-relate-to-the-air-we-breathe/ – retrieved 20/5/18