Taking Nature in

The first step for a permaculturist when arriving on a new piece of land, or in a new farming community, is to slow right down, and to hold back any urge for quick ‘productive’ action. My friend Rob (https://www.robhopkins.net/ ) even suggests that where you decide to settle, build a house and a productive (forest) garden, you need to observe and interact with the land for a whole year, so as to take in fully how the place lives: where is the sun, the shade, how does water circulate, which bushes grow enough through spring to house wildlife, etc…

Observation here involves the eyes, of course, but also the nose (to identify herbs for example), the ears (listening to the wind, the animals, etc…), the taste buds (checking what is edible), and the hands (feeling the soil, touching trees, stones, etc…). In a way, the observing also involves the heart, as you will also work with just how you feel in different parts of the ecosystem.


As you can imagine, the interacting with the natural world is done here with great respect, literally in a subject-to-subject relationship. Slowly, through this observation and careful interaction, you will absorb the ecosystem within yourself; feel its interconnecting patterns, identify the strengths and the opportunities it holds at its core. Gradually, you become ‘at one’ with this ecosystem; only then can the design phase start, and its tasks will be to modulate the existing reality, to foster, through careful design, beneficial relationships, and in that way to amplify the unfolding of the system’s potential.


Observing and interacting with human systems[1]: the central role of empathy

Whether we arrive in a system new to us, or want to start a new system, or ‘wake up’ one day to a new intention in relation to a system seemingly familiar to us, the same principles will apply here: we’ll need to slow down, hold back any urge for solutions, and look; listen; feel; hear what people are trying to say, and encourage their opening up through dialogic interactions. But as we are part of the system, we will need to do the same with our own self: how am I behaving, what am I feeling, what am I trying to express, what new possibilities within me are trying to find their way to the sunlight, and how can I nurture them?


In some way, much of this observing and interacting means sharpening our capacity for empathy; indeed, it means switching to empathy as our primary mode of operating[2]. Who are the people around me, what are they doing and feeling; and where am I in relation to them? What patterns of relating are emerging, and what social reality are we currently producing through these patterns? What are the main places where this reality is being produced (office, boardroom, corridors, evening pub…) and what are the main production processes (email, informal conversations, meetings, sly comments, crisis…)? What is the broader context in which our social field exists, and how much are we integrating – or blocking out – information and resources circulating in the broader context?

What patterns of interactions appear to release energy, new ideas and new possibilities for the system, and what patterns of interactions seem to keep us stuck in producing the same ideas and experiences that we, at the same time, want to move away from? What underlying assumptions are mapping out the territory in which we interact? Amongst those, which ones are ripe for shifting, and what might the new territory look like after that shift?


Observation is also about the potential held in the system: what is the expertise held by the group, what are the dreams, what are the values? What has meaning for people here, what might be their next move if they allowed themselves to open up just slightly to their inner yearning for self-actualisation? And… what might be my own yearning? What has meaning for me; towards what purpose do I feel drawn to?


As we can see, observing and interacting in a human ecosystem involves more than just our head/mind; we also need to use our heart and guts as equally good sensors about how a situation feels like, and what brings meaning – or not – to people.


Permaculture brings an important perspective here, as it constantly reminds us that the way to develop high-yield, low-maintenance natural systems is to generate innovation within the system rather than to adopt and replicate solutions that worked elsewhere.

Powerful, long-lasting change therefore will need to come from within the system; it will, literally, need to unfold from within. Here again, it is crucial to both take the system in, and put oneself fully at one with it, so as to sense the patterns, the hopes, the untapped energies, etc…


As a concluding remark, I’d like to highlight the fact that it is less easy to observe and interact with our full 5 senses in a social field than it is in a natural field. As a consequence, we tend to be overtaken by our mind, by our thinking. Inevitably, we then end up mediating this social reality through our own mindsets, and soon enough we could end up observing and interacting with the social-field-in-our-mind much more than with the social field that is collectively lived and shared by others. I think that in that situation it is both important and useful to go back to our lived experience of the reality we’re evolving in, and to dialogue with others about their own lived experience as a way to re-engage with observing and interacting…


[1] Interestingly, these two principles echo Scharmer’s seeing and sensing principles at the beginning of the U process.

[2] Not just at the beginning of the process, but in fact throughout our existence in this human ecosystem, because the reality will be forever shifting, and will require us to constantly integrate the new data of the present moment.