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Translating observation into practice

 
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Hello!

When I read about Permaculture, earthworks included, I often here statements like "base your designs off of nature" and/or "observe natural systems and mimic them." I think these are great points but for someone who is relatively new to paying serious attention to the natural forms and figures around me I often have trouble translating my observations into ideas for practice. I know that Sepp and many others have AMAZING ideas for earthworks; stabilizing steep slopes, retaining water, making and sealing ponds etc. but when I look at nature I don't see systems with big swales, huge mounded growing beds, terraces, and series of ponds connected with pipe drainage systems etc.

My Questions is two part.

Do you have recommendations that go one (or many) steps deeper for how to translate observation into practice? Do you sit in the forest for hours and just watch? Do you start observing with particular goals of things to observe? Do you have a process for developing your methods or does it just happen?

I know those are big theoretical questions, maybe this would be an easier question to answer. Do you have any stories of how particular ideas like swales, terraces, staggering of ponds, pond sealing, the pipe draining system you developed etc. came to you?

Thank you all for your work,

Alan
 
pollinator
Posts: 304
Location: Montana
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In translating observation into practice it is best to let experience be your guide. Do something and observe the results. There are no rules or set guidelines when working with nature. It is best to do something wrong (on a small scale!) and learn from the mistake rather than to do nothing at all.

Anyone who had the privilege (that is a human right!) to experience nature as a child will know the unique insight and wisdom that she provides. The most profound experiences that we have are the ones in which we are close to nature. People who did not get this opportunity may benefit from going into nature with a young child and observing how they interact with the living world around them. Children are less inhibited and closer to nature, this process comes quite naturally.

Judith, Johnny, Zach, and Chad - Team Holzer AgroEcology
 
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Location: CO; semi-arid: 10-12"; 6000 ft
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Alan, thank you for bringing up this question, and to Zach for your answer.

I too struggle with this. What I usually do is to look at many ideas and possibilities, from these forums, or books, or videos, etc, then walk around my land trying to notice wind, sun, shade patterns, or where water runs or sits, or where I want a place to sit, etc. Sometimes I lay out old hoses or boards to visualize a garden bed or structure, etc, and then try to see how it fits into the larger landscape and my goals.

I also try drawing ideas on paper, and then try marking them on the ground, observing the contours, and how it relates to other elements desired or already there. I know I should probably observe more, but when I decide I like the way something looks I go ahead and start making a small garden bed. Sometimes I change something, but mostly my garden just gradually expands.

I guess that is why Mollison encourages us to start with a nucleus, something in zone one, very close to the house where we can see it and make use of the products, before expanding outward. It is better to plant 10 important trees, and a small garden, and keep them alive, than to plant 100s that we can't take care of. So if we start with a small swale or hugelbed, that can be expanded if we decide to, or lay out a system of beds, but only dig or sheet mulch one at first and learn how by doing, then we can add to our system as time, energy, need, and desire help us determine how to expand the nucleus we started with.

Even Mel Bartholomew, of Square Foot Gardening, suggests starting small, with one bed, then adding another if you want more production. That is how we learn by doing. I have picked up a lot of great ideas, both at Permies, and from many other sources. But that doesn't mean I can, or should, just jump in and turn my whole 2 acres into a complex system of swales or hugelmounds this year--even though sometimes I think I want to do just that!

I too am eager to see my barren land become productive, either as a poultry forage pasture, a savanna, or a food forest, or some combination. But I try to remind myself to slow down and work on small pieces that are manageable, instead of trying to do it all at once. As the smaller sections start producing food, forage, fertilizer, fuel, and all the other products I hope for, including propagation stock, then I can reduce input to those areas and move on to other portions of the land. At least, that is the way I hope it will work.
 
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"Ja, also da sag ich immer wieder. Tu was, dann tut sich was. Du darfst nicht nur reden, sondern du mußt es umsetzten, Du mußt es tun, du mußt es praktisch umsetzen, mit der Erde, die Erde spüren, riechen, wahrnehmen, in die Hand nehmen, daß du siehst welches Leben du in der Hand hast und wie Natur funktioniert. das ist ganz wichtig und das möchte ich bei kleinen, bei Modellprojekten auch bei großen Projekten, allen vermitteln und so die Menschen zur Selbststänigkeit, zur Autarkie anregen, sodaß sie wieder lernen mit der Natur zu kommunizieren."

Well, there I say time and time again: Do something, then something is done. You can not just talk, but you have to implement, you have to do, you have to practically implement, with the earth, feel, smell, perceive the earth, take it in your hand, so that you see what life you have in your hand and how nature works. That is very important and that is what I want convey to everyone in small and large model projects, and in that way inspire humans to independence, to self-sufficiency, so that they learn to communicate again with nature.
 
pollinator
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Often our field of view for direct observation is pretty small....it might help to reach out our mental vision further, both in space and time, and consider the actions and effects of natural elements that are not in our direct physical vision at this time.
Consider, for instance, the work of the beaver. This truly amazing earthworker was in the keystone role throughout much of the north temperate zones of both hemispheres....reworking entire watersheds, establishing ponds and wetlands, slowing water flow, stopping erosion, increasing infiltration, etc. etc.
Or go to a smaller scale and look at the insect world, both in our current landscape and beyond it. All manner of earthworkers, ecosystem managers, ideal niche creators and exploiters can be found there. Incidentally, no major organized activity which human civilization is considered to have invented has not been practiced by the social insects for millennia....including agriculture and animal husbandry, food preservation, fermentation and storage, division of labor and organized action on the scale of millions, large-scale engineering projects for water and temperature control, synthetic materials fabrication, slavery, and organized warfare. So, you can back up any action based on observing nature. It's mostly all there....just about anything we can imagine. Picking which to emulate and work from is where the Ethics come in.
 
pollinator
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Location: NW Pennsylvania Zone 5B bordering on Zone 6
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I know that Sepp and many others have AMAZING ideas for earthworks; stabilizing steep slopes, retaining water, making and sealing ponds etc. but when I look at nature I don't see systems with big swales, huge mounded growing beds, terraces, and series of ponds connected with pipe drainage systems etc.



Look at the patterns and understanding the functions behind the elements that Sepp and others have implemented. They are going for the functional mimicry of nature and it's interrelations with other things and not as much in making a visual match to natural elements. It takes practice (and A LOT of research, whether in nature itself or by learing from those who have gone before us) to allow your mind to get out of it's own way and be open to what nature is trying to teach us. Maybe the best way is to ask why does ___ work in nature and then figure out why. Sepp uses large stones as heat sinks and this enables him to create microclimates favorable for growing things in conditions where logic says they shouldn't be able to survive and thrive. Ponds help with humidity and regulating temperature more evenly, etc. I am sure that I don't even begin to understand all that the founders and rock stars in Permaculture have figured out.

Allow your mind to experience childlike inquisitiveness. Experience life and the earth through your senses. You asked about sitting in the forest and just watching for hours. What if you sat down in the forest...close your eyes, relax, listen, smell, touch, feel (is there a cool breeze or warmth of the sun). Drink in the forest in a sensory way. Walk through the forest, not "looking" for something in particular, but again, what are your senses telling you as you move through. Where do you notice the smallest inflections of change? What is causing them? How could those things be harnessed or mimiced to serve the same or similar function for you? Experiencing the world through your senses can make you come to a whole new understanding and appreciation for it. Heck, if you don't like the forest idea and have a motorcyle, hop on it and for a ride and go through this (keeping your eyes open of course!). Feel the changes in temperature as you go from sun to shade, on crests of hills and in dips of the valley, can you smell the fresh tilled soil of fields (and hopefully not too much of the natural amendments that cows so generously donate), can you smell someone cutting wood and if you do, can you identify it by smell? Just take some time to listen to nature.
 
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Location: Mora, New Mexico
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Thank you all for your insight into this question of observation and implementation of natural systems. It would appear that creation, or the material manifestation of reality, works and exists in context to geometrical patterns and combination of these patterns. These patterns seem to show up on every part of the scale, like we are made of these designs. Understanding the nature of our reality may be the first step in allowing ourselves to observe more throughly. When we start to see how these patterns and designs repeat themselves, we become more familiar with predicted outcomes from our participation. For me, this translates into being more receptive to the workings of the world around me.

If anyone is interested, there is a physics institute in Hawaii that has answered lot of my personal question about quantum physics and where modern science has missed a few critical data points. They also embrace the permaculture model.

Here is a link to the YouTube site.

http://www.youtube.com/user/TheResonanceProject

Thank you,
 
dj niels
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Location: CO; semi-arid: 10-12"; 6000 ft
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Mark, thanks for bringing this back up. It is good to review ideas. As I read back over all these thoughts, including my own from a year ago, I realize that I am seeing things a lot more this time around. I still haven't done the swales etc that I talked about, but I have spent a lot of time observing, both on the 2 acres I have stewardship over, and the surrounding landscapes, and am seeing patterns more and more all the time. So I hope that by the time I actually am able to start the "doing" part I will know better how to accomplish those things that will be most beneficial and adaptible, so I don't mess things up worse than they are now. It is a very degraded piece of high desert, and yet looks quite lush and green here compared with videos about Jordan or parts of Texas. So I am encouraged and eager to learn how to work with this little piece of land, how to care for the earth while also caring for people.
 
gardener
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Alan Wright wrote:

Do you have recommendations that go one (or many) steps deeper for how to translate observation into practice? Do you sit in the forest for hours and just watch? Do you start observing with particular goals of things to observe? Do you have a process for developing your methods or does it just happen?


Alan



I am not sure if Alan is around anymore but I had an answer in mind when I read his questions, so I will put my experience out there.

The way I have translated my observations into practice is by first observing things with nothing in mind, Like - There's native trees along the fence line, there are birds nest here and here, water is cutting ruts here and here, this group of weeds is here, etc. Then I can make more specific observations with my goals in mind, and kind of weigh the hypothetical pros and cons of a design idea, where to put animal systems, where Swales or ponds could go and what would the effects be.

Before I built my first swale I got outside while it was raining and checked out the entire situation from where it entered my property to where it exited, I even dug my trenches while the water was running so I could actively observe and modify my execution as it went along, this saves a lot of time since my errors are immediately seen. (Never mind what the neighbors thought of me out in a storm digging trenches ha!)
My method is that observation never ends, because as soon as the swale was built and planted, I got to observe what's growing and where, how the system does with heavier or lighter rains, through more observation the ideas develop on how to make the system better.

Using this constant observation has allowed me to make small errors that do not take too much energy to fix, rather than huge type 1 errors that will require the reconstruction of the entire system to remedy.
 
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