I explained a couple of weeks ago that I was going to try writing about the twelve permaculture principles this year, one each month. I’ve been putting this first post off because it turns out (surprise surprise) it’s harder to write about than I thought. Still, I’m going to give it a go. My aim is to use the principles as a kind of thinking tool, a lens to look at life in a different way, and in the process to learn a little more about permaculture, and a lot more about myself.
Edited to add: Maddy Harland at Permaculture Magazine is writing a series called ‘What is Permaculture?’ It’s a great read, really straightforward introduction. So far there’s a piece on ethics, and a piece explaining the principles I’m using here. Pop over and have a look!
The first principle is observe and interact.
Stop what you’re doing, open your eyes, and look around. What can you see? What can you hear? How do you feel? Are you happy?
I like observing. It feels active, but you can do it sitting down. There’s no emphasis on doing, just watching, learning. Of course, you can’t just observe, you have to interact too:
“Just observing makes nothing happen. Just acting can make problems bigger and bigger. We need to balance the two” (Permaculture Association)
Last year I observed that working full time did not suit me at all, and after making my wishes known at work, I now only work four days a week. After two whole weeks of observing the results, I can reflect that this suits me perfectly. I’m also going through a period of observing our household finances, and interacting in this area is starting to save us a considerable amount of money.
Lately I’ve started observing how much time I spend on the internet, and last week started the interacting part of this principle by having a day with no internet at all. Observing the results, I noticed that even though I’d stayed in bed until lunchtime, watching the clouds through the skylight and reading and dozing, the afternoon still felt longer than whole days sometimes do, with a walk in the snow, a cafe trip, home made bread, pizza and biscuits.
After weeks of pondering what to write about for this post, I thought it might be nice to give an example.
I’ve spent a lot of time observing our garden. I see it as I walk down the street, and often walk right past the house to have a look from the opposite direction (I’m sure the neighbours think I’m mad). I stand in the living room looking out, or in the bedroom looking down.
This wasn’t a whim, or one of those fancy garden makeovers that happen overnight. This was months, years in fact, of longing for some private outdoor space at this city terrace with no back garden, and trying to figure out the best way to do it. Being idle, it appears we instinctively did as suggested:
“this principle suggests that we take a relatively cautious approach, that we make the smallest intervention that we think is necessary to make the change we want, and then closely observe the results. That way we can change, stop, or continue, depending on the results, without causing any big problems”
I started with a seat under the lilac by the back door, and occasionally a blanket on the concrete path
This worked well enough for a summer, but I wanted more sunshine than this shady spot can give, more space to have friends join me, and more privacy than I could get sitting right next to the entrance we share with five other houses.
And so we opened the front door (which had been sealed shut for 20 years), had a friend cut down the overgrown, dying conifer tree, and started the ever-so-slow process of smashing concrete, building a wall, filling the hole, laying ancient paving slabs, and planting a hedge.
I could have hired someone in to do it (at one point I got so fed up of smashing concrete I even got a quote for someone to finish it off. They wanted £600, and I decided to pull my socks up and stop moaning). But there’s a satisfaction to looking back on a job you’ve done mostly by yourself (with the help of friends).
I learned plenty of things over the course of the many months it took to do this project. I learned a lot about willow, and this year I hope to cut some of mine and use it for weaving (applying the third principle – obtain a yield). I learned how to lay bricks – I won’t be winning awards but my wall has held firm. I learned I can smash concrete and shift paving slabs heavier than me by sheer force of will (I also learned that I’m stronger when I’m angry – a useful observation for other heavy lifting jobs!)
There’s also something about observing what you already have, and finding a way to use that instead of buying something new. While I did buy some breezeblocks and a bit of topsoil for this project, we also found that the stones lining the path were far bigger than we realised, and were actually quite beautiful.
We dug them out and laid them on the top. They were far too nice to be left buried, however much work it was to get them out. I’ve learned you can apply the principle of observing better with your mouth closed and your eyes open, rather than the other way round. When you do open your mouth, ask questions. I asked for, and received, lots of advice – some of which, needless to say, I entirely ignored in favour of my own harebrained ideas.
When I first started, I couldn’t imagine what it would look like at the end. I felt my way, a little bit at a time, changing one thing and feeling my way to the next.
The Permaculture Association says:
“This principle reminds us that permaculture is all about learning. Permaculture uses an ‘action learning’ approach which works in stages:
1. We state a problem, issue or challenge
2. Then consider realistic options for action
3. Put the best option into action
4. Observe the results
5. Reflect on what has been learned
6. Restate the problem, challenge or issue as it now is, and start a new phase of learning”
I’ve always had a tendency towards doing this. In fact, a desire to look more closely and learn about my behaviour was what prompted last year’s conscious living quest.
I suppose what I’m saying is that there’s nothing complicated about this principle. Slow down. Be mindful. When you look around, do you see what you want to see? What’s really happening out there? What can you do to change it?
What’s bothering you right now? Can you think of anything you could do to change the situation, however outlandish it might seem? What’s the simplest action you could try first? Will you?