I have been teaching Permaculture for over thirty years and learning about it for all my life. Really. It’s only when I was thirty, I discovered it had a name. After a few years teaching I learnt that my familiarity with tools was not everyone’s. Co-founder of Permaculture, David Holmgren offers as one of his essential principles ‘from patterns to detail’.
So, the big picture is we are trying to design everything we need to provide for human needs. (Pattern). Then we come down in easy stages through methodology and conscious process. There are innumerable ways of looking at this but essentially, they involve similar ways of thinking in a logical sequence.
We start by noticing (observation). Then we start to ask questions- why is what I’ve noticed as it is? Does it matter? How well does it serve the people who use this space? What impact does that have on the environment?
At some point we notice any limits to what is possible. Boundaries are important because they teach us to work with what we have, not what we dream of having (although that may happen later!). Also, because boundaries are where energy leaks from systems, so they need to be surveyed and protected.
We often need to learn more before we make decisions. Ask questions, check facts, establish intentions and desires.
Only then can we plan. And no plan works without a feasible way of implementing and maintaining it. Which means understanding available resources. Time, finance, materials, skills, oh, and tools. Listening to feedback matters. The Army have a saying: no plan is good past the start. Because things change, the unexpected happens. But if you don’t have a planned destination – any road will take you there. Aimless wandering can have benefits. But if you know your goal a plan helps.
And all of the above are in themselves tools. Because our first tools are mental ones. I am fortunate to share with my family the longest standing intentional food forest garden in Britain. It’s a mere thirty years old. These things have been around on the planet for hundreds or thousands of years in many different cultures, and whilst we were foraging for food throughout history, consciously designing and making such a thing is a comparatively recent thing in my homeland. The best tool I have in my garden is doing nothing. I spend lots of time looking at it and thinking about it. Wondering what to do (or not to do) next.
So as we descend from pattern to detail we start to appreciate the need to know how to select the best tools for the job, right now. At this stage we are into the techniques that will take us where we want to be. Want to feed ourselves? Then we need to grow food. There’s a question of scale. Are we farming or gardening, or maybe even foresting- which can also produce food. Or are we just foraging? If all we are doing is shopping for food we still need tools (transport, money) but we’re less resilient. The more we can produce for ourselves the more self-reliant we are and the more sustainable is our lifestyle.
So at this point we are down to the elements of what we need to deliver our plan, and tools are crucial to this.
I was very lucky to have a father who was an immensely skilled craftsman, and I wished he’d shared more of his knowledge with me in a practical way. I guess going off to the garage and making stuff was his relaxation and self-expression. Often, he was making things to surprise us: a doll’s house, cowboy fort, toy garage or some elegant piece of furniture made from oak purchased as second-hand timber and re-purposed. I still have the doll’s house he made for our daughter, a side table made from scrap and a beautiful sewing cabinet. The love and care he put into them means he still lives with me, and all that craftsmanship has its basis in knowing how to use tools. He always made Sunday lunch. That way he got what he wanted to eat. And we all enjoyed it. Still needs a familiarity with tools.
My mother was a great cook. Idiosyncratic and knowledgeable, she was a great baker, casserole maker and enthusiastic. None of this could happen without understanding the tools she used. She crocheted endlessly. To see and touch one of her blankets is to be invested with her love, years later.
Some years ago, I came up with a structure for thinking about elements in a plan. I called it The Design Element Template. Permaculture I not really about a pocket full of answers- its much more about the questions you would ask yourself to lead you to the right answer for this time, this place and the resources available to you, right now. So: everything that we use as an element in a design has needs. It provides us with outputs. It creates by-products. It has certain characteristics. It has predators. It has a community in which it functions well.
When I ask this of tools, I get some interesting answers. Tools need to be ‘sharp’, ‘well lubricated’, and ‘current’. I use inverted commas because sometimes these may be metaphorical rather than literal. They need to fit well with the user. Using tools long term requires this. The tool is supposed to make doing the task easier. If it doesn’t, it’s the wrong tool.
Maybe we are cutting a piece of wood with a saw. All the above apply. Hopefully we end up with a piece of wood cut to the dimensions we wanted. But then we have by-products. A bit of exercise re-oxygenates our muscles. Sawdust is left – maybe we can use that- to help build soil or create a surface on something we have built… or use it to smoke food for preservation. If the saw is blunt, we’ll be working harder than we need to. So maybe we need to stop and set it and sharpen it. Or maybe there’s a new Japanese saw with teeth which cut in the opposite direction, which will do the job much better if only we had one (currency). Rust is a predator on saws as well as bluntness. So, they need to be kept properly. Its community is a well-managed tool shed and workshop.
Being conscious of and learning about tools reduces our work load and takes us to our goal more quickly, more safely and hopefully, happier.