At first look, permaculture, also known as regenerative design or ecological agriculture, (permanent agriculture) is an ecologically-based design system which allows us to improve our relationship with the land by observing and imitating nature, while using and integrating natural systems and methods rather than fighting against them. Permaculture ethics, root practices and principles are those of nature herself, and can be applied to the garden, the farm, and indeed any living system including human structures.
However, in practice, permaculture also cultivates a way of being that tends to go much deeper than simply a system of ecological design. Somehow, by engaging with nature in intimate observation, we gradually become a part of the system and magically and necessarily engage in our own evolution and transformation. In fact, the ethics, principles, and roots of permaculture practice, can go far beyond the garden or farm and into the invisible structures of our relationships with ourselves and others, as well as our community and organizational structures. By engaging in permaculture, one soon and eagerly applies the approach to other complex systems and challenges.
One of the key tenets of permaculture is relationship. Everything gardens. In an actual garden, this is easy to observe, over time. Every element in a garden, whether it is a plant, an insect, a rock, a pond, animals, a tree or a structure, has an effect on the others. The effect, in most cases, is predictable just by observing the nature of the element placed.
For example, where I live in Northern California, a large rock in a garden covers the soil preserving moisture, creates habitat for frogs and lizards, provides shade at certain times of the day, and may even create a small micro-climate for some plants. The rock, by its very being, its relationships and its placement, is gardening. It might be fair to say that we, like the rock, need simply find our appropriate place and relationships to create a beneficial impact. And, like the rock, we might have a detrimental impact if we are not in the appropriate relationships or place.
So, permaculture offers a way to engage with the world on a small scale, while keeping in mind a vision for the larger design. This is how nature works: a set of laws or principles, such as gravity and atomic bonds, are true for all systems, and nature uses the same elemental building blocks to evolve many diverse, intelligent, systems—systems that evolve from small experiments into successful co-creative regenerative ecosystems.
By understanding how systems work and especially how they change, we can accept that we are doing our part by doing what we do well and what we feel the energy to do. We work at what brings us joy. We can look for those points of leverage where a small amount of applied energy can have a large impact. Paradoxically, by focusing on small solutions, we find meaning and purpose even in the face of the larger destruction around us.
“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” –Archimedes