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.

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3 Responses to Patterning

  1. farmer Liz says:

    My local library didn’t have Gaia’s Garden, but it did have “the Manual”, so I borrowed it out of interest while I was waiting for GG to arrive. I didn’t had time to read it properly, but I did flick through most of it. I have to say that chapter 4 was one that I flicked through pretty quickly, it seemed far too dense, so I can see why you struggled with it. Thank you for this post though, I think you explained it well. I think we shouldn’t assume that a straight line is the best pattern, but we also shouldn’t force spirals etc into something that WOULD be better with a straight line! I find with Mollison that some of his writing/talking is quite muddled, and I wonder if I’m just not smart enough to get what he means or if he doesn’t really get what he means. Personally I prefer Gaia’s garden and anything by David Holmgren. I read Permaculture One as well, it was short, but full of ideas, and I’m not sure that “the Manual” adds much and it could have been improved with a good editor!

    • Calamity Jane says:

      thanks for the reply Liz.
      i think he ‘gets’ what he’s talking about. i think he’s plenty smart. but super smart people are not necessarily ANY good at explaining things to others. very often the opposite. i think for a brilliant visionary he has a remarkably good way with words. i have enjoyed most of the book, and found his style to be relatively accessible, sometimes downright poetic. but it is not consistently so. there are sections with very good writing, and others that are blurry and disconnected. it is almost like you can see his different moods. i mean, everyone has high, clear days and grey, muddled days. it’s an awfully long book, must have taken a very long time to write, and covered a lot of moods.
      though, like you say, i guess an editor is supposed to clean all that up. take the moods out.
      i can totally see why people would not like the manual, and i would never recommend it to someone without talking to them extensively about what sort of book it is. but, i myself have greatly enjoyed it. it is just exactly the sort of thing i needed, and even though parts of it have been hard, i’m so glad to have persevered through. i find all his weird quirks and moods endearing.

  2. lilian says:

    It was the same for me, and in the end I though patterns was the most intriguing yet most interesting topic of the book. If you are curious, read The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language written by architect Christopher Alexander. He also has an understanding of patterns (although a slighly different one) and it seems to have possibly influenced some of Mollison’s ideas.

    Again it will probably give you more questions than answers, but it’s worth reading.

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