This weekend I attended the first two days of a 7 weekend course on Permaculture Design. This is the local Permaculture Design course taught by Scott Pittman. Unlike the traditional 2-week intensive, this course spans 3 months and is only scheduled on the weekends.

I was one of 15 attendees. The group is very diverse in educational background, inspiration, and motivation, but almost entirely white and middle class.

The first day covered:

  • Group introductions
  • history of Permaculture
  • Ethics
  • Principles

The second day covered:

  • principles of design
  • tq: input/output analysis
  • tq: random assemblies
  • tq: observation
  • tq: flow diagram
  • tq: mapping
  • tq: zone analysis
  • tq: guilds
  • tq: sector analysis

(tq means “Technique” and is my lingo, rather than Permaculture lingo.)

At the beginning of day #2, we did a retrospective on the high points of the previous day. I almost answered “the informal conversation at lunch” as the high point of my day: I had a really good conversation with my 3 lunch-mates, getting a better understanding of why each person was drawn to the course.

On the first day, immediately after group introductions, I thought: “The best use of this day would be to have everyone seek out the person who had the most interesting-to-them introduction and immediately convert this to an open space event.” We would have had more productive conversations, more understanding of our own problems, and probably find others willing to share in the effort.

As it was, the first day was a serious disappointment for me. Permaculture is an action-oriented design philosophy. I’m attracted to it because it is a positive vision for How To Save The World.

Every James Bond movie starts with an action scene. There is James Bond jumping out of a helicopter, skiing down a mountain slope and doing crazy stunts. Why is he doing that? It doesn’t matter: you can trust you’ll find out later. The story starts with its best offering: action.

A tragedy is paced completely differently. If you’re going to tell the story of King George’s descent into madness you must draw the story out. Show each step into the loss of sanity: every capability lost, every friend who can’t help, every costly misstep. If you tell this story too quickly it becomes comedy: the king tripping and falling into a puddle of mud.

The first day was paced like a tragedy. We discussed the fact that the dominant species is killing the plant. That our institutions are failing us and that we’re past the tipping point on climate change. I wanted action. Put your best foot forward, get me really excited by what just happened, get my imagination going. Show me what I didn’t know was possible. I’ll trust that I’ll figure out why I jumped out of the helicopter later.

The material taught on the first day was the last piece to be added to permaculture. The original permaculture designers (hereafter referred to as the God Kings) did practical design work for years before they articulated the ethics and principles. That exploration, the process by which they became God Kings, is not the process being used to teach people the material. That is a squandered opportunity. A tragedy.

What is the Story?

My experience of day #2 was much better. Tristan had asked me, before attending the workshop: How are you going to teach these skills to the other Riparians at Sunflower River? The Principles of Permaculture, outlined in the first day, are pithy and metaphoric guidelines. Some of those phrases (e.g., “The Problem is the Solution”) are catchphrases of permaculture that I will likely adopt.

More broadly, the framework in which they are presented has been done better elsewhere. Observation skills, pivotal to permaculture, are more fully developed in “Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature.” Coyote’s Guide has given me a toolbox for observation that has me seeing Sunflower River with “new eyes.” The techniques are catchy and engaging, easy to share, and have resulted in practical material being developed here: the Continuous Environmental Scan.

The principles that don’t directly implore one to observe are clearly derived from observation of the natural world. As each of these was presented, I kept thinking of Cynefin, which is a Sensemaking framework. Sensemaking is a combination of observation, reflection, interpretation, and decision making. As each permaculture principle was introduced, it provide a small, incomplete picture of Cynefin. Principles alone aren’t complete sensemaking: I find they are a critical component to sensemaking, yet pointless if you’re not going to frame the problem in a way that includes decision making.

I will be using the principles as catch-isms, but like the observation skills, my toolbox includes a superior Sensemaking tool (Cynefin) than the one offered by permaculture.

My first answer to Tristan’s challenge is: I’m going to continue mentoring using Coyote’s guide, and I’m going to continue to using and teaching my existing Sensemaking tools to help us make decisions. Permaculture doesn’t have anything radical to offer here.


Day #2 was largely filled with teaching how to create Design Artifacts: physical objects that provide new ways of looking at and understanding a problem. One of these (The Zone Map, created doing Zone Analysis) already sees use at Sunflower River. The others we have not used, and I’m looking forward to putting them together to improve the way we see and understand Sunflower River. We already variously understand Sunflower River as a physical place, a seasonal cycle, and a conceptual hierarchy, which spans the other two cycles and roughly corresponds to the full collection of “Elements” or “Units” in the broadest sense that I understand permaculture to use those terms. The number of useful perspectives cannot likely be enumerated.

Having these artifacts was the turning point in my experience of the workshop itself: I was seeing perspectives that I did not know how to think about until I saw them physically laid out as an artifact. The existing work I’ve done here is using Energy Systems Language to map our Compost Operation. I want to do a lot more of this, but have struggled to find what to express and how.

The day #2 artifacts are the kinds of tools I can use to discover applications of Energy Systems Language. Flow Analysis, one of the artifacts, is a poor introduction to Energy Systems Language, if you want to be formal, or mind maps, if you’re exploring. I won’t by itself use Flow Analysis, I’ll use Energy Systems Language. Permaculture framed the problem in a way that allowed me to imagine what is possible. It has given me more places to apply Energy Systems Language.

Indeed, I immediately came home and saw “flow” problems. The Stewards have discussed many of them, but “flow” problems come up because you avoid them, because they’re painful, or because there is no clear movement of material past a block. I found I could see sources, stores, interactions, production and consumption and now have a language for describing what is going on in terms of material and time, rather than behavior and need. Insanely good.

This workshop has been very challenging for me. I spent the two weeks before talking myself out of every internal block to learning the material I could. I had wanted to spend more time studying permaculture before taking a class: I would have waited another year before taking it had I done the studying I’d wanted to. Getting to the workshop is a significant step in my journey.

I was torn, before signing up for this class, over taking a Permaculture class or a “Wilderness Awareness” class. The jury is still out: I’m being taught material developed by the God Kings and distilled into teachable units. I want the Fire of the God Kings, rather than what it illuminated for them. Permaculture, despite the effort of its teachers, is going Open Source. The Permaculture community is growing fast, and it has its own idea about what that word means. Most of the people I do and will encounter will be permaculturists who haven’t taken a design course: they’ll pick up permaculture bit by bit in useful, incomplete pieces. They’ll be doing what Scott Pittman, Toby Hemenway, Bill Mollison, and all of the other God Kings did: experiment, fail fast, share what works.

The God Kings gave us the banner to rally around, but then they somehow got confused and created a Permaculture Design “Course” for a world whose “invisible structures” are Open Spaces: self-organized to meet a shared need, remix anything and everything, particularly and especially sacred cows, fork to stay small and intimate, and relinquish control over where this whole thing is going.

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