If you know me, you know that I’m a big fan of working collaboratively. There’s just a way that working with other people makes things real. One project has been working with the Great Lakes Permaculture Design Collaborative, Me, Rhonda Baird, and William Faith.
Originally we recorded these lectures as a intro to each of the topics in our first design course together in 2016. The idea was to divide up the topics between the three of us. One would present 10 slides on a subject and the other two would comment. In combination with the reading from the Designer’s Manual and later Practical Permaculture they’ve provided a solid foundation to conduct meaningful discussions in our PDC’s. We’ve been able to use them again in later courses and have found that the material has held up well.
We’d like to share this material with you, to help you on your own permaculture journey. It can be part of a path forward, away from the multi-layered crises of today and towards the future that we want.
David Holmgren, the co-originator of permaculture says “The permaculture flower shows key domains that require transformation to create a sustainable culture.” That is, each petal (or domain) represents a category into which we can apply permaculture in the world. But if you try to use the flower as a directional compass to orient yourself in that particular category, you’ll always find every domain simultaneously. Again and again there are always aspects of each topic examined that fit into each petal.
That is precisely what makes the flower so useful. Any topic examined, from something as general as farming to something as specific as a solar panel, manifests in all of these domains of the flower simultaneously. Together the flower represents the different facets of any single topic or object, therefore we can improve our designs by observing and interacting with each of these domains as we do our work.
As it manifests, permaculture is most obvious in the domains Land, Building, and Tools & Technology, in the physical world. It is less obvious in the other four domains of Education & Culture, Health & Spiritual Well-being, Finance & Economics, and Land Tenure & Community Governance. They represent what has been called “invisible structures” but perhaps is better called social systems as their patterns are quite visible, just often overlooked. An undeveloped petal would be a drag on any system, while conversely an over developed petal can not make up for the lack of development in the others.
So for example, when we put up a gutter on a building not only does it interact with the flow of water and change the way that flow is distributed in a physical place(Land & Nature Stewardship), it is made of materials that were sourced, transported, assembled, and then transported again with a certain effect on the larger landscape (Building), and represents its own set of tools and concepts in its construction and installation (Tools & Technology). At the same time it also has a whole set of information about when and how we use it (Education & Culture), how it affects us physically and through our own vision of ourselves (Health & Spiritual Well-being), there is a whole economy behind that gutter as well as our means to obtain it (Finance & Economics), and finally there are certain regulations about what you can or can’t do in putting it up (Land Tenure & Community Governance).
In the example above, putting up a gutter may be no simple act when we consider all of the domains. It comes down to how wide of a view we’re willing and able to take. It also takes some prioritization to realize what is significant or what we can actually change. That’s where the ethics and principles or tools like the scale of permanence or the 8 forms of capital can help us to examine and connect to the different domains and create lasting, beneficial change in a healthy system.
The different petals together represent:
Land & Nature Stewardship – A specific place and its inhabitants, how they increase or decrease the ecology. What is the cause?
Building – The manmade environment. Specific structures and their construction. What is the total cost and effect over the whole life of the structure?
Tools & Technology – Physical objects that are used to manipulate the environment and concepts relating to how they function. – What tools are commonly used? What ideas and ways of thinking are required for us to operate the way we do.
Education & Culture – Specific, local ideas relating to how life is lived and how that information is transmitted. What is unique about the local culture?
Health & Spiritual Wellbeing – The effect that something has on its environment, both physically and mentally. What does it’s scale and demeanor tell us about ourselves?
Finances & Economics – How the materials are obtained and brought to a site vs how they are extracted. The larger flow of materials and its scale. How does it fit into the economy?
Land Tenure & Community Governance – How decisions are made about a space or it’s inhabitants. Who is included. In what ways do you or the world around you participate?
In the permaculture course with the GLPDC, in each of the topics we teach, we strive to fill our designs with all the domains of the petals.
One of the great rules of design is do something basic right. Then everything gets much more right of itself. But if you do something basic wrong – if you make what I call a Type 1 error – you can get nothing else right. – Bill Mollison
The quote above is something like how my introduction to the concept of a Type 1 error went, some comment made by Mollison in an interview. A Type 1 error sounds important, something we must never do, but what exactly is it?
When I think of Type 1 errors, I think of things like positioning the length of a house on a North/South axis, designing for the wrong climate, putting rain gardens in in marshy, wet areas, putting tall hugelkultur beds on a steep slope, etc. — from macro to micro, I can name loads of examples, but damn if I can give you a solid definition.
So, let’s try and figure it out.
First, let’s survey the landscape: how has permaculture defined a Type 1 error? A little sleuthing with Google turned up these results:
Bill Mollison, co-originator of permaculture, calls these ‘Type 1’ errors – those we regret making every day afterwards because they make it so hard to get anything else right.
TYPE ONE ERRORS are classified as errors/mistakes on a site which will either cost you or the client a lot of time, money, or energy to replace, redo, or clear out of a system if installed incorrectly.
And of course the quote we started this article off with, from Mollison himself: One of the great rules of design is do something basic right. Then everything gets much more right of itself. But if you do something basic wrong – if you make what I call a Type 1 error – you can get nothing else right.
Based on this I still don’t really know what it is. They define the effect of the error, that it causes a cascading problem or an is element that requires a lot of inputs (such as time or money) to keep it in operation. Yet none of them say anything more specific.
A little additional research turns up that there are other types of ‘Type 1’ errors, in statistics, computers, medical; essentially it’s a false positive. Doing something that doesn’t need to be done.
In all of the cases above it seems to be an error of awareness. In each of the quotes above an overlooked or unknown sector makes a mess of the best laid plans. It also tends toward a lack of respect for what is being designed, what the personality or place offers and asks for. Deep observation and interaction is required to build this respect and begin to hear the voice of the landscape.
Permaculture is becoming aware of this cascading functional relationships, sort of like a fountain. When a piece is out of place we can cause all sorts of problems for the rest of the system.
Lack of observation of the system we’re working with can quickly lead to expensive or ongoing problems if our plans even work at all. So the old permaculture adage “first observe for one year” might be said “in order to not make a type 1 error, first observe for one year”.
Perhaps this could be more flexibly stated as don’t jump in and work on major projects or limit your actions if you haven’t observed for one cycle (this year the garden will be here but smaller , next we’ll see). Be aware of both smaller cycles (daily rhythms, ) and larger cycles (flood, drought, new job, moving, birth, illness, death).
The world is bigger than us, we have to operate by its rules first. Perhaps this is the ultimate source of the error. Granted we can’t be aware of everything but a little humbleness about our place in the world can go a long way.
What is permaculture? What is it to practice permaculture? How does it lead to positive outcomes?
The way I’ve been practicing, I’d call it a philosophy. A way of being. I think you can see it most clearly in the choices I’ve made. It is a process. It is the adjacent possible.
What is this world for? Life happens so that life may happen. It’s there for us. It is a power on a grand scale. How do we tap in to that power when we’ve been so disconnected from it?
That’s permaculture. It is to that which I am a guide.
We sit under the shade of a tree and watch the wind whip the grass. We see where water has rushed past in previous storms. A cardinal, a woodpecker, a nuthatch appear and disappear above. A rabbit peaks out from under a shrub.
Idyllic no? But it is the truth. If you listen hard enough, long enough, you’ll hear what the adjacent possible might be. What would be welcomed. How you could be welcomed.
If you can put your energy behind that, what would happen?
What stands in our way? Nothing but ourselves. We just have to start.
It’s always tricky to find the right situations in which you get to play with rocket stoves. Symbiosis Ranch, in Mt Pleasant, MI, is going to be that right such situation. This June we’ll be installing a batch box design in their Aircrete Dome. I’ll be teaching a 2-day workshop , June 27 & 28, 9am – 5pm(?) each day, all for $199. Registration coming soon at, symbiosisranch.com or call (989)506-0057 to save your spot.
A new podcast is out. This time we’re talking about plant families. Rhonda was away at the Tracker School (I think), so we kept on going without her. It was shorter than we were shooting for but that’s OK, I think
I’m very interested to see where we’ll be as the podcast matures. We’re getting used to it, developing a rhythm. Getting better every time.