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First Principle - observe and interact  RSS feed

 
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It seems to me that we could use the scientific method as a tool for actualizing the first principle of permaculture.

I've been reading about the design principles of permaculutre and how we can use them to improve our...well, everything. Land, life, food production, clothing, whatnots, these principles look really useful.

The first principle is my favourite: Observe and Interact



from the Permaculture Associate site:

1. Observe and Interact
"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder"

Observation is key to permaculture. Developing good observation skills is essential if we want to make well-functioning permaculture designs.

By observing natural and social patterns we are able to use them in our design work - this relates to Bill Mollison's philosophy of 'work with nature, not against'. We have to know how nature works if we want to be able to work with it.

"Good design depends on a free and harmonious relationship between nature and people, in which careful observation and thoughtful interaction provide the design inspiration." David Holmgren

Since we are usually dealing with complex systems - even a small garden can be incredibly diverse with many interactions - 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.

In fact, "failure", is very useful, as long as we learn! And learning is the key point. 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 learnt
6. Restate the problem, challenge or issue as it now is, and start a new phase of learning

Just observing makes nothing happen. Just acting can make problems bigger and bigger. We need to balance the two.



One does wonder if a permaculture system is too complex to isolate variables in a scientific way. But this complexity doesn't mean we can't use science to learn new things.

I'm a big fan of having a control group when trying a new technique.

For example, this year I've been putting whey on some of my tomatoes and not on others. There are lots of variables I'm not taking into account in this experiment - these are different types of tomatoes in vastly different soils, with different sun exposure, different companion plants, &c ad infinitum. If it was purely scientific, the conclusion would be inconclusive; however, I can still gain some information from this experiment. I know from previous experience how tomatoes do in these conditions, so I can come up with a general conclusion if it's worth experimenting with whey in a more controlled fashion next year, or if I should try it on a different kind of plant. Maybe the lettuce that is companioned with one tomato does better than the other lettuces. My experiment is nothing about lettuce, but since I'm using the broader idea of the first principle, I can take this observation and use it to inspire a future scientific experiment.


Basically, I'm looking to brain storm practical examples of how we can use the scientific method to help us increase the effectiveness of the first principle.

 
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I think observation is one of the keys to good science. One of the problems, at least as I see it, with the above principles as they stand is that they run an increased risk of confusion over cause and effect. It's a principle that is good at noting that y followed x, but much less good at working out whether y happened because of x, and whether v and w might have been other factors. Well-conducted science can help us narrow down whether x caused y, and the extent to which v and w might be involved, which is why we have controls.

Science is a tool designed to tell us how Nature works. Like most tools it can be misused, but that's what it's designed for.

Good permaculture science requires lots of people to come forward and say that they saw y following x, or n following m, so that we can then get on with identifying causes.

Case in point: you observed that after you added a microbe tea to your vegetables (x) the vegetables grew more strongly (y), but you then realised that v (llama manure) and w (watering) might have also had something to do with it. The scientific method, applied well, can teach us the extent to which the microbe tea, the water and the llama manure caused the vegetables to grow better, or even whether unknown factors like m and n might have been involved.
 
raven ranson
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I like this:

Good permaculture science requires lots of people to come forward and say that they saw y following x, or n following m, so that we can then get on with identifying causes.



This is why I try to leave my knowledge at home when I go out to observe. Like the Fukuoka know nothing farming technique. Correlations are pretty easy to see (y follows x) but worry that if I take my analytic brain (figuratively speaking - I can't actually remove that part and store it in a jar or something) out with me, then I might start seeing causal links where there isn't any.

I like the idea of lots of people making observations and then, as a community we speculate as to the causal link and how to investigate the topic further.

Like the microbe experiment I'm preparing for. My conclusion is almost certain to be inconclusive. But if four other people did the same experiment, we could look for commonalities and then see if it's worth investigating further. I like this cooperative citizen science approach better than the one I learned in academia.



One thing that comes to mind, however, is that the scientific method seems well suited to collecting numerical (quantitative) observations. I feel a lot of what I do in the garden/farm is based on qualitative data - observations of little things, sometimes so small a thing that my mind translates into instinct instead of an actual conscious understanding that there is a correlation between this and that.

It feels to me that science can be a vital part of the First Principle, but I also feel that it's not sufficient to be the only part. Our mind makes connections in observation that sometimes it forgets to articulate to our conscious mind - sometimes these instincts can lead us in the right direction. By observing our instinctive actions, maybe we can discover new experiments to play with. Since science hasn't had a chance to play with these ideas yet, sometimes these ideas can seem a bit far-fetched, but I think there's something useful there, even if it's not the causal link we first imagine.

 
Neil Layton
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One of the problems with a less controlled approach is that humans are particularly good a self-delusion. We consistently see what we want to see - and we all make these mistakes.

This means that while the qualitative approach certainly has its value: "these plants look bigger than those plants" is a good starting point, it's the more organised approach involving measurements that can tell us whether these plants are bigger than those plants and, as importantly, why.
 
raven ranson
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Neil Layton wrote:...We consistently see what we want to see - and we all make these mistakes.

This means that while the qualitative approach certainly has its value: "these plants look bigger than those plants" is a good starting point, it's the more organised approach involving measurements that can tell us whether these plants are bigger than those plants and, as importantly, why.



That's exactly why science is useful.

However, I wonder. It seems to me that the first observation "these plants look bigger", is necessary before we can dig the scientific method out of the toolshed. The scientific method seems to need a specific question to answer, and qualitative observations help provide that question.



I think both qualitative and quantitative observations are essential parts of this First Principle. I imagine that some people's minds are better at qualitative understanding, and others minds are geared towards the numbers and data sets. I envision these two styles of thinking (and a whole range of neurodiversity) working together. Some of us notice that y seems to follow x in our garden, and this becomes inspiration for experiments. Others do some actual field work, set up controls and whatnots (I like this part, but the next part bores me to tears), and other people take these observations, compile it into a data set, and brainstorm what conclusions we can make of it. It's like that neurodiversity article that Neil wrote for Permaculture North America Magazine. Maybe somehow, we can take a polyculture of people (oh, I don't know, like we find on permies.com) and somehow we can work together to learn new things. It's just an imagining, but maybe it could work.
 
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Observation is the first step both in Science and in permaculture. It is necessary since without observation, nothing can be "known".

Once we know something we can then ask the questions; How does this work? and why does this work?, along with lots of other questions that always come up while trying to devise the way we will get answers to the first two questions.

In my own journey in this particular speck of the Universe, at this particular time (an interesting thing all on its own), I planted a pumpkin seed that sprouted.
Now I want to look at the roots while they are in soil, surrounded and occupied by millions of bacteria, fungi hyphae, along with millions of other microscopic things, problem is, how do I do this without doing the very thing that would kill all of what I want to observe?
This is the conundrum for lots of the questions we have in the horticultural world. Sure we can observe what is on the roots (pull a plant and look with a microscope), but once we have pulled the plant, things are instantly out of order and we will perhaps be able to know some of what is there but we won't be able to see the interactions that take place. So, if we build a glass container, oops, now we have a controlled space that we can observe but unless it is large enough for those plant roots to spread as they do out in the ground, we have changed the situation for both our observations and the plant along with all the supporting characters group.

This is the problem with scientific method as we currently know it. To study and find our answer, we change the situation, thusly changing the answer so it no longer is the answer we were seeking in the first place, just a shadow of it.
But at this point in our sophistication of technology we can derive answers no other way than one investigation at a time. So we take our cube of soil, sample it, identify as many organisms as we can find out as much about their interactions as we can then we extrapolate other answers (just like we do in physics or any other discipline of science. This doesn't mean science can't come up with explanations but we have to keep in mind that just because it looks like we have the answer, doesn't mean we didn't misinterpret what we think we found out.

There is a part of physics that says we have no free will, it simply isn't possible, well, until we add in the law of randomness from quantum mechanics, at which point it becomes apparent that we can.

I see science as a way to discover the layers, once we find all the layers, we can figure out how everything interacts, once we have done all of that, then we can come to answers of how life works.
I know other scientists that think they have the answers, so far none of them can provide all the answers needed.

Example: roots provide the water, and nutrients needed by the plant.
True enough.
But we now know that the roots work better when bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi hyphae are present.
We also know that the plant will send out signals to these organisms to attract them to come live on and in the roots because these external organisms are part of the all important symbiosis of life,
the roots can pick up more of what the plant needs and the bacteria and hyphae can pick up more of what they need, everyone benefits including the giant two legs that put the seed in the soil so it would grow and produce food for the two legs.
I imagine that once we dig deeper we will find that there are sub-microscopic organisms that are part of the symbiosis of life too.
The deeper we observe, the more dependence we find.
 
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Sorry, this is a bit off topic, but I was thinking of this quote today, and this principle came to mind.

I've learned so much these past few years, just by sitting back, holding my horses, and watching. I've noticed so much, and it's helped us to be more successful gardeners, and just better homesteaders in general. All of our skills can be improved upon just by watching and taking notes, rather than tearing something apart until we figure out how it works.
discovery.jpg
[Thumbnail for discovery.jpg]
 
Bryant RedHawk
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I don't think that is off topic Destiny.  In my many, many years of observation I have noticed that  this one particular mind set, the "all things are here for our use" one, is probably the single most destructive thought process ever developed.

Your quote seems to be from someone observing this mind set and not from a scientific perspective.

Discovery, in the sense of this quote seems to be the same one people carried with them on the 1400-1700 period sailing ships. Where they found land, they claimed it as if no one else had any right to it.  That is perhaps the most disturbing part of history to me.

One does not destroy during the process of true discovery unless they disregard civility the way the explorers of the above period did.

I have re-worded this post to better express my personal view, which is that we Observe how earth mother goes about her business then use those methods as best we can to accomplish our own goals.
This is actually easy to do without destroying what earth mother has already done.
It does take active thought and using reason to the best of our abilities.
 
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Destiny Hagest wrote:Sorry, this is a bit off topic, but I was thinking of this quote today, and this principle came to mind.

I've learned so much these past few years, just by sitting back, holding my horses, and watching. I've noticed so much, and it's helped us to be more successful gardeners, and just better homesteaders in general. All of our skills can be improved upon just by watching and taking notes, rather than tearing something apart until we figure out how it works.



I'll start off saying that I didn't give any 'thumbs down' here....it wasn't me, although that's what I think about this meme. 
I see this as one of those memes that narrows the meaning of a word too much.
I think we all discover things everyday, maybe every minute if we are paying attention.....babies and young children especially.

I get what the meme is trying to say...I just think it's of off putting and I see the language used as 'violent' in itself.

...and I see 'observation' and 'discovery' as very closely related in meaning.

I think that just 'discovering' something doesn't (always) mean that 'rape and pillage' will follow 

 
raven ranson
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I don't like that quote. 

Why does discovery have to be violent?  Yesterday I discovered that my sunflowers that have less soil moisture have larger leaves than the ones in the wetter part of the farm.  The same variety of sunflower from the same batch of seeds, one has a leaf about four inches across, the other has a leaf about two feet.  Yet, another clump of sunflowers in the zero irrigation no water what so ever part of the yard have a leaf about 1/2 an inch across. 

I didn't harm the sunflowers, I didn't even touch them.  I didn't step on any grass in the process because the grass has died back.  I did startle a lizard, but so does a gust of wind, so I don't think my presence there caused any harm.

How did I scar my sunflowers?
Did I rape them?  I didn't notice.  Maybe by looking at them, I raped them with my eyes?

I think this quote is trying to redefine a beautiful word 'discover' which has a very broad meaning and history, into one narrow, nasty meaning. 

Discovery has nothing to do with violence - that's the choice and action of the individual, not the word 'discover'. 

A child discovers how to walk.  Should we stop this because the toddler 'scars what it explores'? 
 
Destiny Hagest
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Perhaps a little context is appropriate - this quote is from Ian Malcom in Jurassic Park, in reference to the company tinkering with dinosaur DNA to bring back several extinct species.

I totally agree, discovery in and of itself is a matter of perspective, and can absolutely be done without destroying what it investigates - what this is referring to is the modern method of discovery, the colorful history mankind has of finding something beautiful, then tearing it apart as we find a way to profit from it.

Again, context is everything here - sorry for the confusion!
 
raven ranson
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Destiny Hagest wrote:Perhaps a little context is appropriate - this quote is from Ian Malcom in Jurassic Park, in reference to the company tinkering with dinosaur DNA to bring back several extinct species.

I totally agree, discovery in and of itself is a matter of perspective, and can absolutely be done without destroying what it investigates - what this is referring to is the modern method of discovery, the colorful history mankind has of finding something beautiful, then tearing it apart as we find a way to profit from it.

Again, context is everything here - sorry for the confusion!



Oh, I see.  I was wondering why it had quotation marks but no name of who said it. 
 
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Destiny Hagest wrote:Perhaps a little context is appropriate - this quote is from Ian Malcom in Jurassic Park, in reference to the company tinkering with dinosaur DNA to bring back several extinct species.

I totally agree, discovery in and of itself is a matter of perspective, and can absolutely be done without destroying what it investigates - what this is referring to is the modern method of discovery, the colorful history mankind has of finding something beautiful, then tearing it apart as we find a way to profit from it.

Again, context is everything here - sorry for the confusion!



This, I think, is exactly the problem with memes and trying to say something universal in a very few words. 
Most ideas and concepts are so much more complex.....
 
raven ranson
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I think this quote brings up a very good point related to the topic of this thread: How can we observe and interact without destroying?

If the principle of permaculture was "observe" and nothing else, then that would be simple.  But it includes "and interact" which means we act in a way that affects the world around us.

One thing I read somewhere, probably on permies, is that when we interact with our permaculture project, we do it on a small scale first and observe the results.  Last year, I grew a few sunflowers and watched how they grew and took a guess as to what conditions they would like best.  This year, I've planted four stands of sunflowers, all in different conditions, and am observing how they grow.  Alternatively, I could plough the entire five acres and plant sunflowers everywhere, that would give me more data as to what conditions sunflowers like, but it would be destructive to take down all those trees, plough on a steep slope, drain the pond, and so on. 

What can we say about "observe and interact" so that we can do this in a way that keeps with permaculture philosophy?
 
Destiny Hagest
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I guess I just thought it was a powerful quote (and was so well known it didn't warrant the text of where it was from), but I guess I was wrong.

I totally agree with memes being dangerously generalizing, but at the same time, nothing travels faster on social media - it's an incredible way to bring attention to a topic.

Anyway, I don't want to distract from the original topic of this post, maybe it wasn't as relevant as I thought.
 
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@R Ranson: "How can we observe and interact without destroying?"

Well, I think Bryant R did a pretty good job of summing it up.  There are cultural paradigms out there that were able to both observe and interact without the level of destruction that is commonly seen.

Previous quote from within the OP: ""Good design depends on a free and harmonious relationship between nature and people, in which careful observation and thoughtful interaction provide the design inspiration." --David Holmgren"

Just putting out there that a "free and harmonious relationship between nature and people" possibly begins with the same sort of relationship between adults and the children they rear.  Bringing in the observations made by Jean Liedloff in writing "The Continuum Concept", pasted below is a brief tale depicting the "test" building of a crib (not normally used in that culture) by a Yequana native for his son.  The question to ask is what set of ethical, observational, and useful lessons are being learned by tale?  Is there anything in the tale that informs a discussion on "interacting without destroying"?
CribLife.JPG
[Thumbnail for CribLife.JPG]
 
Bryant RedHawk
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I have always used the "Baby Steps" approach on our land.
Wolf and I sat and observed for a full year before we did anything, including clearing the plants that were reclaiming the things done by the previous owners.
During this period we took a lot of notes, used marking tape to define spaces to determine the best use for each as well as marking off "Do Not Disturb" spaces.

We have now gotten to the point of starting to utilize previously untouched portions of the property.
This takes a lot of thought and walking since we do not want to create bare land or remove trees without a lot of thought and the determination that it must be done.
Now that we have started the animal acquiring stage of farm development, we have to add in more observations and take more notes, as well as making changes to the initial plans.
I do not see any other way to reach our goal of "best use" for our property, it will always be an on-going process, so changes are inevitable.
The one thing we do  that is Permanent and Constant is the perimeter fence.
It's the one thing we simply have to have to protect our animals and allow us to Post no trespassing signs along the Borders.

Most of our pastures are being put in without removing any tree larger than a stunted sapling.
The canopy that is there will always remain, there are many stunted saplings that don't get enough sun because of the canopy.
We have finally determined which of these stunted trees to leave and which ones are damaged so much that they will die anyway, the doomed are the first to go.
The pasture plants are strewn over the forest floor in layers, the longest to sprout go down first the quickest to sprout go down last.
All are left to earth mother to water, a survival of the fittest sort of planting method.

This does several things for us. It keeps our water usage down, it shows us which plants are best for what we need in these areas, it shows us which ones don't need to be re planted in these areas.

We also have those spaces we determined to never be touched (except to put in the perimeter fence on the property lines).

 
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