Sunday, February 3, 2008

Permaculture and METTA

For the last couple of years I have been promoting the idea of Metta (from the
Buddhist - 'loving kindness') production, the next step beyond organic (or at
least industrial organic which seems to have seperated itself from the "healthy
food from healthy soil" approach of the founders).

The contention being that virtually all production today is (Yeomans) extraction
fertility farming, this leads to a depletion in the micronutrients available in
food, we mine the superficial layers of the soil/import compost etc. Some
contend that obesity is caused by the body quest for said micronutrients which are usually in miniscule supply from modern diets so you have to eat massive to have enough.

Metta would involve each grower (re)becoming a healer (someone who makes whole),
they are deeply responsible for the health of each of their customers, guiding
the contents of each weekly (or whatever) hamper to create then maintain full
health, for themselves too. Residues, and ideally humanure and eventually
bodies, are returned to the grower so "only sunlight is harvested". A contract
is made, so to speak, between customer and food supplier, the former do what
they need to do to not degrade their health, the latter does what is needed to develop robust good health.

These growers will have to have much knowledge and many skills not necessarily
found in today's systems. A good understanding of human nutrition will be one,
and by this I don't mean the mainstream nutrional "sceince" but something much

The grower living/working in a designed system has low direct income need, so
doesn't need a huge/expanding customer base, and stays human scale.

Added into the food supply would be/are lots of wild foods, older varieties,
reverted varieties (as with Fukuoka). Polycultural strategies such as the
Coppice Orchard we have here coupled to good crop choice, eg lots deep rooters,
accumulators etc are essential too.

With the Copp Or system for eg we have hazels which drop leaves still rich in
stuff, Eleagnus fixing N and giving a, just, edible fruit, and generally all the
trees with their leaf fall, insects, birds, bacteria, roots, adding to the
richness of the system. N/S glades are created by coppicing the apples, hazels,
eleagnus etc and these are chipped and put as mulch. Etc. My focus is very much
on micronutrients and deep soil/subsoil cycling.


Permaculture teaching

I have found that there are stages in the evolution of a teacher as in
everything. One of the most important is when the art you teach "becomes yours".
This isn't just when you know the subject from a-z and can speak from
experience, its something that happens in the mind and everything sits into
place. This will usually follow a minor epiphanie/eureka moment. Your
subject/new understanding now becomes available as a tool for the learning of
any other art.

Models, for learning/teaching styles etc etc are great at the beginning of ones
"career", they are obviously no replacement for mastery of the art of
teaching/learning. At some point I believe one is confronted with the task of
accepting what you know and understanding where you are along the Way of any
art, there is a difference between the teacher of a course and the participants,
a fundamental one that should be respected.

I proposed years ago that PmC adopt something more akin to the Dan grading
system which in its true form has many nuances between the grades leading to a
point where your peers recognise that you have achieved true mastery.

It would also be intersting to encourage more PmC teachers to sit through other
teachers courses, we in PmC ,have the tradition of offering free places to PmC
diploma holders which seems to have been somewhat forgotten.


Permaculture, Strategy, Aikido 

Permaculture, Strategy, Aikido and the attractive force

(Inrokyo no Tenren)

In order to understand it we can take the term Permaculture as a noun and a verb, as the end result and as the process. It is important not to confuse the two so I will use the term a Permaculture to refer to the end result and Permaculture Design to refer to the process.

They are both remarkably easy to describe

A Permaculture has:-
Everything connected to everything else
Every element serving more than one function
Every important function supported by more than one other element.

The Permaculture Design will:-
Connect everything together
Ensure every element serves more than one function
Ensure that every important function is supported by more than one other element.

Nothing complicated or difficult there, the process of designing involves as few or as many
methodologies of design and techniques as are strictly necessary and these are nicely and clearly laid  out in the main Permaculture books.

Yet we become confused and have a tendancy to mistake the simplicity for a sort of concealed
complicatedness, perhaps nervous at the idea that the problems and conditions that we see around us everyday and in which we live could so easily be sorted out.

One reason for this is that we confuse the ’10,000 techniques’ one or many of which we will use in our design, for the design process itself. I read an article recently where it was stated categorically that Permaculture design was using 40 cm of straw as a layer of mulch, we can see that this is a technique and it must be said one that is often inappropriatley applied. At other times I have read that a Forest Garden is a Permaculture, we can see that it is actually gardening strategy and one that is often mis-designed. On a recent course at L’Academie Bretonne de Permaculture Phil Corbett pointed outb succinctly that people often confuse plant height with shade tolerance, Robert Hart himself mentioned that in cool-temperate areas a forest garden should dip in the middle to give light to the centre.

I mention the above to add weight to the notion that Permaculture Designs are done by Permaculture Designers. These being people have gone on from basic courses to gain years of experience and observational, hands on knowledge. Landscapes, people and situations are too varied for this to be any other way. A good Permaculture Designer will be thoroughly steeped in the ’10,000 techniques’ and will have a profound understanding of the art of strategy and the way of design, will be, to quote
Tomi O’Tani sensei,

“A Jack of all trades and a Master of one”

It is also clarity at all times which is needed and it is long experience which will allow this. A
Designer may have a favourite technique (mulch?) and a preferred strategy (Coppice-orchard?) back at home but it would be unfortunate to carry these around and apply them carte blanche as has happened in the past with mandala gardens, herb spirals and more recently forest gardens. A Designer may hate working indoors in an office but there are many who enjoy this and hate working outside getting wet and dirty.

In Alexander Technique we find the useful notion of ‘end-gaining’, this is our attempts to achieve good ‘posture’ by sitting in or standing in what we think is a good posture., trying to get to the ‘end’ without going through the process of re-teaching the body/mind good habits. This is often true of our approaches to the creation of Permaculture’s and why it is fortunate that we have our few and reliable golden rules. Their strict application will allow a Permaculture to unfold as the design is implemented ,and matures, this latter implemenation will be accompanied with changes and learnings on the part of the participants which will enable a good ‘fit’ between human inhabitants and their Design. Liken this to a tadpole who shares 100% of its D.N.A. with the frog it will become yet the lifestyles of the two are radically different, the one would at best be unhappy trying to live the lifestyle of the other.


We can in some ways see a Permaculture Design as a time and space dancing mosaic of techniques and strategies. To elucidate this let us consider the Coppice-Orchard pioneered by Phil Corbett of Nottingham ( This is a mix of vegetable beds, own-root fruit trees and nitrogen fixers, periodically a North-south row of trees will be coppiced giving light to the N-s vegetable beds they are growing in, the fertility of these beds is then exploited for crop production until shaded again by the regrowth of the fruit trees. Over the subsequent 8-10-12 years of the coppice rotation the shaded vegetable beds with their shade tolerant cover of plants will regain fertlity ready for the next coppicing. So we get cereals, vegetables/salads, top and bottom fruit, firewood and carving wood, nuts, honey, fungi, fertlity rebuilt and fruit trees which tend to stay in a young phase and will long outlive their grafted and non-coppiced cousins.

What I have just described is a small part of the big strategy of the coppice-orchard, within it we have mosaics of techniques and their strategies. Composting is a technique, the way it is to be done is the strategy, how this connects to everything else is design. Here with our small coppice-orchard we intend to compost through anaeobic decompositon in a bio-gas plant which will give us compost for the gardens and gas for the cooker and fridge in the house (and perhaps sufficient for the odd trip in the car). Another composting strategy might be to use the Jean-Pain system or even a windrow.

We can use the art of strategy to examine plants themselves, what is it that a particular plant does during its life, what is its shape, what niches has it come to occupy in terms of height, leaf shape, flower, seed, transport? When we fully understand the plants life strategy we will be able to fit it correctly into our bigger strategies of gardening, food use and its storage. This same approach holds true when we consider buildings, what strategies were used to allow the building to breathe, to hold
heat, to be lit. Here we have a 200 year old stone building with walls 1 metre thick, this latter enables walls to be built without the use of cements which act as glues, mud is used as a filler and leveller but doesn’t hold the walls together. The finished walls were rendered inside and out with a mix of muddy clay and lime.This meant that buildings could be made with mainly local materials, indeed the stones come from the fields, could be easily repaired and extended. In terms of modern understandings we have a high thermal mass house which holds its heat in the walls but tends to only have small openings so is relatively poorly lit inside.

A lack of understanding of the original builders strategy and the nature of stone means that many of these buildings have had their thermal mass destroyed by, more recently, insulating and plaster boarding the inside of the walls and previously by using a thick cement render. Most are also pointed on the outside or even fully rendered with cement, one now has a low thermal mass house inside the shell of a high thermal mass building with walls that can no longer transfer moisture away by capillary action as the cement blocks this effect, where cement render has been used inside we have walls which are more than 3 C cooler than the ambient air so we have a feeling of cold. An understanding of the original builders strategy means that we render with clay and lime or lime and sand, keeping the thermal mass and allowing the walls to ‘breathe’.

We can use an understanding of the art of strategy to shine a bright light into the dark corners of
practices and behaviours to illuminate and help us find a correct path through the myriad techniques available.

Aikido and the Attactive force.

I am here referring to the teaching lineage of Morehei Ueshiba ( the founder of Aikido ) to Hickitsuchi Michio (10th Dan and student and close companion of Ueshiba for over 45 years) to Gérard Blaize (7th Dan and student of Hickitsuchi Michio). It is thanks to the translations, interpretations and proficiency in Aikido of Gérard Blaise that we in the West have been given access to the real understandings and Way of Ueshiba.

“ A human being must achieve a harmony of three elements : the spirit of the heart (kokoro), the body itself and the Ki which unites them.
There are three studies :
-training to achieve a harmony between the spirit of the heart and the activity of the universe;
-training to achieve a harmony between the body and the Universe;
-training to harmonise the ki, which unites the spirit of the heart, the body and the activity of the
(Aikido magazine, no 18, 1985, p.14.)

We can understand “the activity of the Universe” as being the activity of creation through cycles, actions and activities which are destructive go against this general principle. Ueshiba realised that the human world was one big family and that the notion of strangers was false, he also saw that the Aikido he created was not an end in itself but would enable practitioners to find their role in the world and to act creatively and correctly.

It is interesting that many true Ways have very few rules, in Aikido we have three. The term partner is used as the world is a big family there can be no enemies or attackers.

  • Never look into your partners eyes, if we do our spirit can be taken by the forces that motivate them, can be troubled by the anger or fear that moves them.

  •  Always be ahead of your partner, if we wish to help someone so that their destructive impulses don’t hurt them or let them go against the creative flow of the universe and come to harm we must act first with firm gentleness.

  • Never have any openings, as we act we seek to harmonise our ki with that of the partner, if our movment is not true our ki ceases to flow in an area of the body leaving an opening which the destructive impulses of my partner could exploit.

In terms of Permaculture design we can directly adopt these rules in not only our activities in
Peoplecare but also in the way we perceive designs and their evolution. With regard to the first rule, how many of us have gazed despondantly at a problem trying to find a solution, a light at the end of the tunnel? In Permaculture Design it is said that ‘the problem is the solution’, by training in Aikido and following the first rule we can come to realise the truth of this and acting boldly step to oneside and see the solution, as training continues eventually both terms will fade away to be replaced with a deeper understanding.

The second rule is well known to good gardeners, we are part of, partners with the natural world and must act accordingly, there is timing in everything and overlaying an artificial timescale onto the world is perhaps an unproductive approach. Being in the swim of things enables us to perceive the tiny fluctuations that means movements are changing. Studying this rule in Aikido means we come to understand that movment is continuous, Nature doesn’t stop and start, things flow from season to season, gardening shouldn’t stop and start either, rythms and tempo change. Our personal lives don’t have stops and starts, there has obviuosly been a flow which brings us to a point where a change happens, what brings someone to do a Permaculture course? It is very important for us to understand this, we don’t keep getting in and out of a swimming pool we are continuously more or less immersed in the flow of a river.

The third rule and its study has profound implications in Permaculture Design. On a personal level if I am moving, perhaps to do work, in a way that stops energy flowing in a particular area I will eventually damage that part of my body: in terms of Design an opening is an opportunity to increase productivity and if left unfilled will be filled by something that may be unproductive and cause us work. A study of Fukuoka’s work from this viewpoint can prove fruitful. An opening can lead to energy flowing away from our site, perhaps as pollution or just as the loss of a potential resource.

Inrokyo no Tenren, the attractive force.

In Aikido one studies to move correctly, with a timing that comes from the continuous flow, to lose all fear, nervousness and trepidation, to be completely and continually relaxed. As these come to fruition one can discover that the ability to lead others, gently and firmly, away from destructive action becomes easier and easier, the partner finds themslves swept up and held by what is referred to as ‘the attractive force’, we have all experienced something of this, in Aikido we can train to develop it.

As a general principle the concept of an attractive force can fundamentally transform our approach to the world and how designs and change can be implemented. Too often we try and push things in the direction that we think we want them to go, surely it would be easier to create the conditions that will allow that which we want to form itself. We see, after all, ecological succession in natural systems, perhaps gorse and broom giving way to birch then oak etc. each changing the conditions of the soils, air and water and making the area more attractive for other species. It is easier to set up magnets than to try and bulldoze things our way. This approach enables us to find a low input way of achieving designs, it will perhaps generally take more time, but this is not a difficulty as too many mistakes get made in haste and too much damage gets done by pushing and forcing. In a Permaculture Design then much of it will be there to create the conditions that will allow ecosystems to form, that will allow the complexity of interactions and connections to develop.

I have tried to show something of the nature of Permacultures and Permaculture Design and to present ways in which given sincerity and commitment we can help ourselves develop as Designers, I am convinced of these and also that there are no doubt others of equal validity. I hope that what I have written doesn’t seem to be too unpragmatic, those who know me will, I hope, attest to my pragmatic and practical approach as to my general skeptiscm until things are proven by time and experience.

Steve Read
Université Populaire de Permaculture