The Permaculture Toolkit - An Intentional Design Process
By Emilie Tweardy
Permaculture gives us a toolkit for moving from a culture of fear and scarcity to one of love and abundance -Toby Hemenway
This quote speaks deeply to me because I’ve always seen Permaculture as a toolkit. A common Permaculture frustration is the absence of a specific working definition. Ask any 10 Permaculturists and you’ll get 10 different definitions. In fact, in recent months, I discovered a new personal favorite straight from the mouth of the godfather himself (Bill Mollison) calling Permaculture “the rational man’s approach to not shitting in his bed”. This off-the-cuff approach to a definition is common in the Permaculture world because it’s just such a broad field. The idea of intentional design can (and should) apply to anything you’d like, so how do we pare it down to an elevator pitch? Hence, the toolkit analogy. There are hard skills, soft skills, precision skills, broad skills. Permaculture as a system is the structure - the whole kit. The techniques themselves are the tools inside.
The study of Permaculture is best approached from the bird’s eye view, or “Pattern Level”. Over time, we zoom in to look from a worm’s eye view - what we call the “Details Level”. The pattern informs the details; the context makes sense of the minutia. And what we at SPI emphasize overall, is that in our world the “human sector” (in permaculture, ‘sectors’ refer to the energies flowing across a site or through a project. We study a myriad of sectors - wind, water, sun, human. etc.) is the foundation for all observations, techniques and applications. After all, we’re living in the Anthropocene Era now - even geologists (in labeling current time as the anthropocene) recognize that the study of the Earth at current time deserves an underlayment of anthropology, it simply cannot be escaped. We must take into account the effect of humankind on anything and everything we do. From community design on down to garden design.
Moving through a Permaculture Design Courses (PDCs), students learn hard skills like tree plantings, soil sampling, client interviews, map making, mushroom cultivation, grafting, intensive gardening and so much more. Stocking the toolkit. This is the easy part, frankly - collecting merit badges for all our skills. Nothing gets a group excited like digging in the dirt! And, we all get to know each other in the process. Oddly enough, that’s the hard part. Tensions arise, energies flow, bonds are made, strengthened, made stronger again by sharing and vulnerability and a common experience. This may sound like a metaphor for a drum circle, but the reality is that this simple process of group learning develops intimacy; it supports fundamental human needs. In this ever-connected world of electronic “followers”, “likes”, and “friends”, we see an increasing need for real-world sharing and connection. The struggle is real! That “fear and scarcity” that Hemenway references is just as human as it is economic. We emphasize and explore this in our classes for a number of reasons, but most importantly, we model, learn and practice these skills because they are absolutely crucial tools in the toolkit for successful design. As Dave Jacke says, “90% of all Permaculture projects that fail, fail due to poor design in the human sector.”
As we get to know each other, the “human ecosystem” of the classroom unfolds. We become guilded into useful groups and subgroups as we navigate our own Human Sector experience. There are unique flora and fauna represented by the individuals present. We may have teenage college students, 70 yr old retirees, businesswomen and men, entrepreneurs, execs, stay at home parents, massage therapists and construction workers, all in one room. Any one person might hold several of those titles at the same time. The cooperative learning experience then unfolds as a result of all the people in the room coming together, stepping up to the experience and leaning into the recognition that we are all in this together. We begin to see how we meet each other’s needs. What would happen if we were stranded on an island together? Where are the holes in our knowledge base? What skills are being lost from our communities altogether? How do we identify these strengths and challenges in our projects and for our clients? How do we meet them with grace and understanding, and ultimately - with elegant solutions? Enter the intentional design process. It’s a way to pull all of our skills together and make sense of a situation, whether it’s an office space or a backyard.
Over time, we fill the toolkit with strategies for strength and resilience. And while we learn these skills for independence, we continue to dig into the importance of dependence, not on fossil fuels or electronics, but on each other. We can’t all specialize in everything. We don’t all have grazing lands, we don’t all have mechanical skills, we don’t all have computer savvy. How can we come together to fill those gaps for each other? How can we use the human sector to elevate our design? To enhance our lives? This human sector focus turns all of the other tools into useful equipment, not just blunt instruments. After all, what’s the point of building a community garden with no community? No food forest is meant to feed a single individual. And drilling deeper into skill building and design savvy, we always, always, always return to Principle #1 - Observation and Interaction. If you’re not awake and involved, if you’re not participating, the cycle is broken. Permaculture design requires engagement. It’s as simple as that.
It’s not uncommon to see a Perma-newbie on a message board saying “Permaculture has all the answers! We can use it for anything!”. At first glance, this sounds so incredibly pretentious, but they’ve hit on something - Permaculture does have many answers, because it’s rooted in observation, adjusts to accommodate feedback, and includes everybody. And when you utilize everybody’s strengths - you can find all the answers. Or at least a lot of them.
But without the design process, Permaculture is just a pile of tools. Mollison famously warned against PDC grads just being “a bunch of woo-woos spinning around in circles”. And it’s a fair criticism. Permaculture can easily be an echo chamber of environmental enthusiasts, and gardeners, natural builders, non-violent communicators, edible landscapers, artists and more. But even Mollison, the founder himself, wasn’t afraid to call it out. Because that’s the heart of the design process - we never stop observing, we recognize feedback, and we re-evaluate as-needed. Permaculture in practice is an evolution. This design process gives us a structure to hold all of the tools, and a method to the way that we use them.
So when people frown on day 1 of a course when we say “this is not a gardening class”, I lean in. When people roll their eyes as we use Hemenway's talk of “love and abundance”, I get excited. Bring on the skeptics! These folks have the most transformative experiences of anyone because the Permaculture design system actually values and validates them and their opinions. We use an intentional design process because we look at all elements together - skeptics included. We design for people AND the environment, and we make each one better in the process. The toolkit is massive and growing all the time, and none of it holds together without the process. And because we are growing with intention, we aren’t just tools, but instruments, tuned to a purpose, playing together. Hell, we’re a symphony for change! Ok... maybe I’m getting carried away. But the moral of the story is that Permaculturists walking the walk aren’t just woo woos spinning in circles. We’re a community spiraling towards abundance, and it’s all by design.