Bill Mollison says patterning is the heart of design, and design is the heart of permaculture, so I dutifully read straight through Chapter 4 “Patterns,” even though it was a slog which took me over a month to complete. I didn’t skim it, I read every word, in fact I read most of the chapter twice, in a desperate attempt to understand. I had hoped that as I read it would start to come together, start to make sense, start to become relevant.
Sadly, it didn’t. The Manual can tend towards some heavy science, but chapter 4 is (was for me anyway) almost completely impenetrable. Looking back over the chapter now, I realize I did actually absorb some interesting and useful knowledge. More than I had felt like I did. But even still, at the end of the chapter, I couldn’t have explained what a pattern is.
I think maybe the problem is of the ‘can’t see the forest for the trees’ variety, which I am feeling lots of since I got into permaculture. Mollison attempts some awfully extreme detail, while still expecting us to keep the whole picture in mind, and I find myself panting to keep up. I can see the individual trees alright, but I can’t zoom back out to the forest. Actually, for the patterns chapter, I couldn’t see either clearly. And, while I don’t mind missing out on a few of the details, I can’t stand not understanding the basic concept.
I tried to find some outside reading that would help. Strangely, I couldn’t find too much on the old interwebs. I have to wonder if the patterning isn’t a big hole in permaculture, that only a few people really understand. Maybe the rest of us do understand it, but only in a visceral, instinctual way. Not in a clearly defined, intellectually succinct way. There were lots of sites that used the word, but very, very few that really explained what it meant.
Then I found an article titled Decoding Pattern, by Big Sky Permaculture, which helped bring everything together for me, “A pattern is essentially an ordered arrangement of objects or events in time or in space, [it] is the connections and relationship between things.” I recommend the whole article (it was supposed to be part 1 of 2, sadly there appears never to have been a 2.)
At the very end of chapter 4, in the very narrow little section on “Applications,” I did have one small epiphany. It was as he described using ‘flowforms’ (which mimic the irregular riverbed shape) to direct water for aquaculture. By applying a natural pattern to the bed through which water flows, you can achieve great oxygenation with no further effort or energy.
At that point, I thought about the way that modern humans approach everything– our dominant cultural pattern is straight lines and square corners. I thought about how we would normally construct a water channel– the modern aqueduct. We design for efficiency, but our knowledge and understanding is so limited that we only perceive a handful of variables out of the hundreds and thousands. We create an efficient pattern to suit those few variables. A straight water channel with a flat surface allows water to move efficiently over great distances. By “efficiently” we mean fast and smooth.
Natural patterns are supremely efficient though, because nature constructs things with all variables at play. Fast and smooth water is efficient at transporting large quantities of water from one place to another, but that’s all it does with efficiency. It doesn’t do anything else of particular value along the way. Natural patterns on the other hand might not do any single thing with the greatest efficiency, but they wring every last bit of random and seemingly unrelated potential out of whatever they are applied to.
Obviously that is an extraordinary quality to emulate on the homestead. However, as someone who once constructed a too-large spiral garden bed, I can safely say that human interpretation of natural patterns is highly fallible. Although the herb spiral that Mollison describes– 5 ft across and mounded up to 4 ft tall in the center– may well be brilliant, an annual vegetable bed shaped into a flat spiral 20 ft in diameter is a royal pain in the ass.
The keyhole beds so quintessential to permaculture also look to me like an inefficient pattern for much of my garden. This is another case of something which works brilliantly in one scenario and doesn’t work at all in another. If you are growing perennial crops, keyhole beds would be awesome. Or if you were growing annual crops using no-dig and heavy mulch methods, yeah, I can see it. But for a typical annual vegetable garden, dug up once/year and in great need of regular weeding/tending, keyhole beds would be another royal pain.
[The case could then be made– stop digging and start mulching. But here in Cordova our cold, wet soils make for very, very low fertility and you need to fork in amendments yearly. And sadly, you can’t apply mulch to annuals at all, it insulates the cold soil from the meager heat of the sun. The true permaculture response to this place would be to not grow annuals at all. I am simply not prepared to give up my kale and carrots.]
Blindly or simplistically applying a “natural” pattern isn’t useful at all. Nature is case sensitive to the extreme! Certain patterns are appropriate to certain functions, and size and location are everything. Which is I suppose why he spent such a long time describing patterns, we must well understand them to be able to apply them.
Sadly, I just didn’t feel his explanation was accessible, either to myself or your average aspiring permaculturist. Bill Mollison has given humanity some incredible insights, and written a mostly concise, informative and even accessible manual describing them. If he has fallen a bit short with just this one chapter, can we blame him? Can we at least admit it? Or do we have to play The Emporer’s New Clothes and everyone pretend we get it, so that we can prove our selves worthy?
A friend of mine told me I was just taking it too seriously, looking too hard. “You already get it,” she said. “Don’t over complicate it.” And maybe that’s it, I am known to over complicate things. In one of the lectures I listened to online, Mollison said that children understand pattern innately, and that we lose it as we grow up. Maybe we have natural pattern understanding driven out of us by the prevelance of modern straight/square patterning. Maybe we just have to free our minds to re-understanding what our animal selves still know….. Maybe I just need to eat some mushrooms.