Pattern Understanding

Understanding Patterns – Part 1

Exploring the skill of pattern understanding in permaculture

Patterns are present in every aspect of our sensual awareness.  Patterns are in the connections within our own bodies and mind, and between ourselves and those around us. Humans seem to have a universal compulsion to measure, depict and record patterns; yet they can also often elude us. To some people, patterns may seem unimportant. However, if you decide to consciously start designing different aspects of your life then at least a basic understanding of patterns is essential. This article explores the theme of understanding patterns as a skill and way of life.

Why are patterns important?

 ‘Understanding Patterns’ is a core module of the permaculture curriculum; as it says in the Designer’s Manual;

“If we are to reach an understanding of the basic, underlying patterns of natural phenomena, 
we will have evolved a powerful tool for design”
Permaculture: A Designers' Manual, Bill Mollison, Page 70

Patterns are prevalent in all parts of the world. From the hugest galaxies flinging their spiral arms billions of light-years into space, to the microscopic molecules which make up the matrix of physical life. It seems that for as long as humans have had something which could be described as ‘culture’, we have been depicting those patterns we observe around us [i] [ii]

Because patterns are such a fundamental part of existence in this universe, you could say that it is not really necessary to ‘understand’ them. Indeed, as Bill Mollison and David Holmgren point out, much of the skill of applying pattern understanding in design is intuitive.

"we feel what kind of patterns are appropriate in certain places, without necessarily
being able to explain why or how" 
Permaculture: A Designers' Manual, Bill Mollison.

Intuition and sensory observation can be seen as the first step towards effective design. However, if the patterns we create are to fit harmoniously with those created by other humans within the systems we are living, it is also important to be able to consciously define and communicate said patterns. This is one reason why I see permaculture as such a useful design tool. We can utilise the permaculture perspective to draw the connections between intuition and conscious design.


Mastering the pattern

Once you begin to notice patterns, it can be relatively easy to spot them in your own life and your surroundings. The Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual describes many different types of pattern. It goes into detail about where they occur in nature, what their function is, and how you can utilise the same patterns to achieve similar functions in your design. Learning all of these different functions and pattern types can seem overwhelming. However, one of the most interesting things about the way the information is presented in the Designer’s Manual is the idea that “one master pattern is applicable” for all the different types, and that, when you include elements of growth and flow, you can link all of these master patterns into one “single model form.”

The form chosen in the manual is a

“stylised tree” 
Permaculture: A Designers' Manual, Bill Mollison, Figure 4.1 Page 72 & 73

The stylised tree links together diverse elements.  These include; the overbeck jet, scattered, concentric, spiral and dendritic patterns, among others, especially when you include the patterns made in the medium of time as well as space.

Whether or not you use this particular way of mapping patterns, the “stylised tree” is a useful illustration of a key point to understand about patterns. No pattern is isolated in nature. All patterns fit together in some way, especially when you view them from a different perspective. For example, seen from above, a tree’s crown may present a scattered pattern; from the side, a dendritic or branching one; and viewed over time, a kind of overbeck jet.

So in a way, all patterns can fit into other patterns.  Once you start to think in this way you can perhaps begin to play with them.

“The pattern is design, and design is the subject of permaculture.” 
Permaculture: A Designers' Manual, Bill Mollison, Page 70


Where we are in the pattern

The basic patterns which are outlined in the ‘Designer’s Manual’ can be seen in many common everyday phenomena. For example, the spiral of a snail-shell, the way water in a stream can rush suddenly into an overbeck jet; waves on the sand of a beach; the fractal repetition of a fern-stem as it grows; the tessellation of fish-scales or beehives; dendritic action in the roots of plants; or symmetry in the wings of a butterfly.

Krzysztof Niewolny

Once you begin to consciously understand how these patterns function, you can begin to start incorporating them into your physical designs, choosing the appropriate pattern depending on what effect you wish to achieve. For a quick explanation on how to work with common patterns and their functions, you can look at my workshop outline here. [iii]

Along with such directly visible patterns there are perhaps less obvious patterns too.  There are patterns which are observable in time like the seasons, the moon phases and the sun’s position in the sky. Our ancestors arguably had a much closer link to such patterns.  As many of us grew up in modern industrial society, we may have been subject to somewhat of a cutting-off from natural patterns.  Perhaps with an emphasis placed on literacy, numeracy, computers and other human-controlled patterns over those based on art or wordless understanding.  David Abrams book, “The Spell of the Sensuous”, makes good reference. [iv]

On a personal level this can be seen in things such as living in a house with climate control so that the patterns made by the weather make little or no impact on our awareness. Such conditioning can potentially have the effect of clouding our abilities to intuitively sense patterns in nature.  This therefore makes us unconfident about implementing natural patterns in our designs. Coming to terms with the wider patterns around us which are invisible yet tangible could therefore be seen as a skill which has to be learned, or perhaps, rather, remembered. This remembering could take place as a simple widening of perspective;

“Beyond the rigour of the simple Euclidean regularities beloved of technologists 
and architects, there remains most (or all) of nature. Nature imperfectly round, 
never flat or square, linear only for infinitesimal distances, and stubbornly abnormal.
Nature flowing, crawling, flying, weeping,and in apparent disarray. Nature beyond 
precise measurement, and comprehensible only as sensation and system.

Nothing we observe is regular, partly because we ourselves are imperfect observers...
Regular things are those few that are mechanical or shaped (temporarily) by our own 
restricted worldview; they soon become irregular as time erodes them. Truth, like the
world, changes in response to information.”

Permaculture: A Designers' Manual, Bill Mollison, Page 71


Observing and interacting with patterns

So now we have looked a little into why understanding patterns is important. How permaculture can help us to connect conscious and intuitive understanding.  Plus the importance of re-finding our connection to natural patterns in order to become aware of how we can alter or enhance the patterns within which we are living. In order to put these into practice, the first step seems to be to follow the first permaculture principle. ‘Observe and Interact’. Where can you find patterns in your own life? How would you like them to be incorporated into your own design?


Invisible patterns

Observing and interacting with those patterns around us, which are visible in time or space, can be very rewarding. It is also an effective way to begin any design adventure. However, there are also many types of pattern which are perhaps more difficult to immediately map. The invisible patterns.

By invisible patterns I mean those which are clearly present as some form of pattern but which cannot at first be directly observed. Examples of these kind of patterns include the connections between different beings within an ecosystem, or between different human members of a community. These patterns are also present inside our own minds and mental structures. They are in the habits of communication which we engage in on a daily basis.


Patterns and social permaculture

In my work with social permaculture, I find that these patterns can be sometimes difficult to detect. However, once we become aware of them, we can be very well-placed to create truly effective change within the systems we are designing. In following parts of this article I will explore some ways we can utilise ‘Pattern Understanding’ in social permaculture.  I will look at some key practitioners of this field and their work, and make some suggestions for how to apply this within your own life.

Don’t miss Understanding Patterns part 2: Patterns in Social Permaculture



[i] Mollison, B, 1979. Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. Tagari: Tyalgum, Australia.

[ii] Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Griffin: New York City, USA.

[iii] Ashwanden, C, 2019. ‘Workshops and Resources: Understanding Patterns’. Abundance Dance Garden, 5/9/19. – retrieved 5/9/19.

[iv] Abram, D, 1997. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World. Vintage: New York City, USA.

Charlotte Ashwanden

Charlotte Ashwanden (nee Haworth). Born in London, I am very interested in peace and community and have a degree in Peace Studies. I got my Permaculture Design Certificate in 2011, from Treeyo at Permaship in Bulgaria, and my Permaculture Teaching Certificate in 2018 at Aranya in India. For me, permaculture is about so much more than garden design; I am mainly interested in applying ‘human permaculture’ as a complement to peace practices. In particular, I like to look at how human permaculture can be applied through psychology, communication and education techniques. In 2015 I got married in a pagan ceremony in a field to David Ashwanden and changed my surname to Ashwanden. With my husband, I’ve travelled a lot in Europe and Asia and encountered many permaculture and community projects. I have lived in various situations, from squatted land to intentional communities, as well as more ‘normal’ places, in the UK, Spain, Italy, Thailand and Vietnam. A professional dancer, I do fire and hula dance and sometimes run dance meditation workshops. Currently, I live in the Andalucian mountains.


  1. Thanks, again you bring such thoughtful and experienced observations in a way that they inform and create curiosity at the same time.
    Through years of embracing Permaculture in my life and then presenting its richness to others, I have found that these forms come alive as we apply them. I feel that this is what Bill and David intended too; ( an inner Permaculture; as individual as trees in a forest).
    There is a depth and richness of experience which words alone cannot communicate.
    Through the process of actually drawing these forms, they can awaken within us, our own sensitivity towards them and our intuitive understanding of them. They start to stand out, as through drawing them or dancing them into life or putting our own bodies into them or walking them while meditating, they and we share the same space and time; a time which most often expands.
    Obviously in the design process, they then become activated, if we allow them space, as each, inter-related element offers its own way of representing or communicating these forms. We initially use our flowing sensitivity to connect with others….places with mountains, rivers, houses, wind, trees of all shapes and sizes, animals of all expressions and people, a rich diversity of different consciousnesses.
    Thanks for bringing these flows to the surface of Permaculture in your articles. They are invisible until we allow ourselves to open to and experience them; accept them as ourselves.

  2. Some thoughts to ponder when you look up at the night sky…

    “From the hugest galaxies flinging their spiral arms billions of light-years into space, to the microscopic molecules which make up the matrix of physical life”

    The Largest Galaxy In the Known Universe: IC 1101
    This massive galaxy is an estimated 6 million light-years in diameter.

    Dwarf galaxies are among the smallest galaxies that have been classified thus far. They are rather small (as the name indicates), but that’s relatively speaking, of course. They’re still unbelievably large in “human terms.” Many of these galaxies are about 200 light-years across, contain only a few tens of millions of stars, and weigh only slightly more than a star cluster.

    The second grouping includes spiral galaxies, such as our very own Milky Way (more specifically, ours is a barred spiral galaxy). This type of galaxy is the most commonly observed in the universe, making up 60 to 75 percent of all galaxies ever found.

    Now we approach the largest galaxies – the ellipticals. They range in shape from nearly spherical to nearly flat, and they can contain as many as a trillion stars. For comparison, the Milky Way is believed to contain a mere 100 billion stars (that’s a lot, but not compared to a trillion).

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