11 Oct 2009, 3:52pm

more permaculture notes

weeks later, here’re my notes from day two.

we started with a “best of yesterday” review, where we popcorned words and phrases from the day before that we remembered. i wrote down some of them, each of which could probably be a post in and of itself:
edges – sky gods & earth spirits – a million years – transition – cross-pollination – connection – mollison’s book as scripture (toby had told us that he sometimes picked up bill mollison’s permaculture design manual and, as if it were the bible, opened it to a random page and read a bit to ponder…) – horticulture – succession – regeneration – surplus – “doomstead” (hah!) – creative descent – “bend the grid” – “permavangelism” (haha!) – “permacult” – feedback loop – ethics – fractals – abundance

we started class by continuing and finishing our discussion of the permaculture principles.

we discussed a phrase from #7 (”use small scale, intensive systems”): “grow by chunking”–repeat successes, don’t bite off more than you can chew. you can create “nuclei” in your design which will eventually expand to join other nuclei in creating a whole, or spread from one beginning point. we also briefly discussed “embedded energy,” which is the amount of energy involved in creating and delivering any technology that might be used in your design, etc.

principle #6: make the least change for the greatest effort–has to do with knowing the system. what its vulnerabilities are, the species involved, etc. obviously related to observation (#1)–don’t introduce something that will cause more problems, don’t act too early or too late, don’t intervene when it’s not required, etc. also related to #5 (each function is supported by multiple elements)–most problems have lots of solutions. some examples: graft apple branches onto a mature crabapple tree, so as to get apples a lot faster than if you’d planted a new apple tree; let your plants get eaten long enough that beneficial species will show up to eat the eaters!

the principles are a nested set.

principle #13: the biggest limit to abundance is creativity–mollison’s original was, “there is no theoretical limit to a system.” you’ll almost always run up against the limits of your imagination before you run up against the physical limitations of a system. we tend to take something from a source, use it, and then it’s sunk/done/”away.” nature, on the other hand, puts the products of various sources through a whole bunch of transitions–it’s used for x, the waste product is y which is used for z, which fertilizes n, etc. often there is no “sink” at the end of this process–evaporation or decomposition or something else turns it back into a source. so, how many of these transitions can you put into a system?

then, toby gave another presentation, titled “patterning: natural form as a designer’s manual.” it was awesome, and went roughly as follows.
(pictures found with google image search; click them for links to their sources.)

we humans are hardwired to recognize patterns, especially face patterns. we impose patterns even when they are not necessarily there. patterns scale smoothly–images of drops of milk in glycerin looks a lot like images of huge stellar objects many light years away. there are non-spatial patterns in behavior, ritual, and time.

nature uses patterns to solve design problems. for example, the interior of a vulture’s wing bone–i wish i could find a picture online, but you’ll just have to trust me that it looks pretty much exactly like this:

we use this pattern (trusses) often when we need to make something light and strong!

nature uses patterns, rather than more material, when it needs to add strength–material is expensive!

another example:


so, here are some different kinds of patterns…

all forces pushing outwards are matched by forces pushing inwards. for any given volume, a sphere has the least possible surface area, and therefore requires the least material. when people tried to use this pattern in the real world (for liquid storage tanks, etc), however, they found that gravity means this shape requires lots of bracing (extra material). in nature, spheres (for example, water droplets on a surface) sort of flatten. the resulting shape is a great design that’s often used for liquid storage tanks. you have to design for the REAL, rather than for the IDEAL.

in a beehive, as little wax as possible is used to create separate chambers. the result is that packed would-be spheres become hexagons–with 120-degree angles between sides.

these 120-degree angles also tend to show up when things dry out and stress:

and in columnar basalt (geology rocks! also, clicking on this photo is worth it. there are some more hexagons in this link, too):

and in soap bubbles:

and tortoise shells.

we use this pattern in design of things like fishing nets and networks.

minimal surfaces:

surface is expensive–nature will minimize it. another example: wire shapes dipped in bubble soap–see this instructable. (i keep meaning to mention how awesome instructables.com is! you should check it out.)

diatom patterns–ok, so diatoms are tiny unicellular phytoplankton. if i’ve got this right, there are tiny holes in them, very even and regular. they create these holes by blowing out a layer of bubbles and spitting out silica around the bubbles. the bubbles are popped, et voilà. human designers have used a similar process to build things like semiconductors. the alternative: precise laser drills are expensive, and the material that’s drilled away is wasted.

(before we get off the topic of diatoms, check out what i found when i googled “diatom patterns”–this guy makes patterns on microscope slides, including MANDALAS out of diatoms. click here and especially here. do it!)

frei otto, architect, used soap bubbles to figure out how to make roofs with the least possible surface area:

also used for yurts, tarps, etc.

working with EDGE:

edges are often where habitat is–the edge of the forest, the edge of the water, etc. so, for example, maximizing the edge of a pond is a good idea. for the same area, a many-lobed shape has more surface area than a square has more surface area than a circle.

also in garden design–planting in rows means as much area is path as is planted. planting in raised beds means more of it can be planted because it being raised means it’s easier to reach and there doesn’t have to be as much path. planting in keyhole beds is even better–because you can reach in so many directions from the same path, planting area is maximized. a couple weeks ago i shared a picture of a mandala garden, made of keyhole beds arranged in a circle.

more keyholes: office cubicles, u-shaped kitchens (everything within easy reach), subdivision cul-de-sacs (so everyone’s neighbors are as far away as possible), those crazy developments sticking out from dubai that maximize waterfront property.

offer increased edge (and, often, turbulence) for transfer across surfaces.

for an example of turbulence: coral is filter-feeding… it needs lots of current to drift across it with bits of food. its mound shape makes current spiral around it, then its lobes cause more turbulence and all of the coral gets to feed (rather than one bit of it getting all the food because the current hits it first).

lobes are also found in our intestines and lungs and in microfilter systems. and all that stuff above about edges and keyholes applies.

for collection and distribution.

tree branches collect sunlight, make sap/sugar, distribute it back to the branches. river deltas collect and distribute sediments. lungs, veins and arteries collect and distribute oxygen.

there are several drainage patterns that occur in nature: dendritic, rectangular, parallel, trellised, and deranged (no single process)–all with different geological causes (i sorta want to take a geology class!).

in a tree leaf, the path (vein) that brings nourishment to the rest of the plant is a part of the leaf that is not gathering sunlight/growing food, i.e., needs to be adequate but can’t be too much. so let’s mimic it in the garden! so we have enough path to gather enough food!

explosions are a subgroup of branching–for when energy use is not a concern, just want to distribute as much as possible as quickly as possible–distributing seeds, for example.

examples of branching: dichotomous keys, rotaries, subdivisions/suburbs (excellent for collecting and distributing cars…).

repetition of a simple pattern at smaller and smaller or larger and larger scales. occurs in nature–for example, the way a tree grows.

it’s a way of using the same instruction (genetic or whatever) over and over again to create something much more complex than the original instruction. toby’s example was a village in cameroon–the village is horseshoe-shaped. within that village, several house compounds are horseshoe-shaped. within those compounds, the houses themselves are horseshoe-shaped.

are patterns of growth and flow, from quarks to galaxies!

a common pattern in nature: the double spiral–with spirals in both directions (clockwise and counter-clockwise). for example: pineapples, sunflowers, pinecones. often, as in pinecones, there are eight clockwise spirals and 13 counter-clockwise spirals. 8:13 is a common ratio.

plants often grow their leaves in a spiral pattern for optimum light. 2 twists for every 3 leaves, or 3 twists for every 5, or 5 for 8…

this is the FIBONACCI SEQUENCE! (1,1,2,3,5,8,13, and so forth)
1/1 = 1
1/2 = .5
2/3 = .667
3/5 = .625
etc, approaching .618034… i.e. THE GOLDEN MEAN.

you all know this, the golden rectangle and all that, but just in case, this is it:

it’s been used in architecture and aesthetics and such since the greeks (maybe). even fits the proportions of the human body (or maybe that’s one place we’re imposing pattern where pattern isn’t. it’s still pretty cool).

the spiral is a logarithmic spiral–like a nautilus shell.

the classic permaculture garden example is the herb spiral–a spiral in a mound (so a helix/corkscrew) creates microclimates–a hot south-facing slope, a cool north-facing slope, etc. so you can give each plant an appropriate spot.

spirals form in fluids and flowing things: eddies! form leeward of objects. this scales: you can see it in the ocean, on the lee side of islands, and in stellar objects. von karman vortex streets:

vortexes–spirals stretched into three dimensions–pax scientific uses vortexes to create incredibly efficient pumps and propellers.

patterns of CONTROL: THE GRID–
as opposed to natural human settlements, which do not look like a grid. toby had photos of indigenous villages and stuff, with lots of curves and clusters, but just take a look at the oldest parts of the big european cities:

(this is barcelona. it’s easy to tell what part is oldest–what grew naturally vs what was planned when it became clear that the city would be much bigger.)

toby says: the patterns that you choose will allow certain things to happen and not allow other things to happen. in natural settlements, intersections and places where paths converge become natural gathering places.

the evolution of the grid:
the first places that the grid as used were military camps–a grid makes it easier to give directions to barracks, etc.
grids also make it easy to divide land up and make it a commodity–real estate.
america’s manifest destiny: jefferson’s land ordinance in 1785 that divided the entire continent into a grid.

circles are egalitarian–it’s hard to tell who’s in charge when everyone’s sitting in a circle. rectangles enforce power structures (for example, in a church, the parishioners can all see the priest, who is in front and elevated, and the priest can see them, but they can’t see each other). the grid enforces power structures.

the first thing a colonizing force does is impose a grid. this eliminates gathering places–plus, a sentry on a corner can see all the way down several roads. and sentries can see each other and communicate easily.

that was the end of the presentation. next (after talking a little about the design projects we’ll be working on throughout the course), we began discussing permaculture’s design methods. number 1 is (drumroll please) observation. the others are as follows: mimicking nature; options and decisions; data overlay; flow diagrams; traditional/indigenous cultures (i.e. what have people been doing on this land and how has it worked out?); random assembly; analysis of elements; zone and sector analysis.

as an example of “options and decisions,” toby asked us–
what can you do with kitchen scraps? we came up with a big list of possibilities: compost, give ‘em to chickens (and/or dogs, pigs, etc), give ‘em to worms, bury them, send them “away”/to a landfill, put them in the garbage disposal, use them to grow flies (hah), use them as mushroom feed stock, make vinegar, make alcohol, make dyes, make soup stock, make paper, sort the seeds out and use them to grow more food, root them.

so, sort through these options and use them in a certain order to get the most use and return out of what a moment ago was a waste product! see also the discussion at the beginning of this post about principle #13 (permaculture is itself a redundant system, hah.)

as an example of “analysis of elements,” which involves “listing and connecting the needs and yields of the design components,” we talked about chickens. some needs: food, shelter, protection from predators, to scratch, other chickens, shade, a place to roost, heat and cool, etc. some yields: eggs, fertilizer, pest control, entertainment, meat, feathers, noise, etc. a good designer will find other things within the system that will yield these needs or need these yields, and so forth. unmet needs in a system = work for someone (going out to get chicken feed or whatever). it’s better if needs can be met naturally by your design (chickens eat humans’ food scraps).

we also did some “random assembly,” by writing random design elements on notecards, and prepositional phrases on other notecards. we put them together randomly in small groups and practiced figuring out a way to make sense of what we ended up with (grape vines next to toolshed, raised bed above orchard, whatever). it’s a brainstorming method and a way of stepping out of thought patterns and such.

then we all taped chose one of our design element notecards and wrote some needs and yields of that element on the card. we taped our cards to our shirts, got up, and tried to arrange ourselves in groups such that we were all getting our needs met and our yields were being used. fun and silly. and that was that. until next weekend!

(for all my notes from my permaculture course, click here.)

I’m not sure that natural settlement patterns are necessarily more egalitarian than a grid. It all depends on your perspective. If you think about it, chaotic street patterns like central Barcelona also reinforce power systems, they just happen to be local ones. A grid allows outsiders to join the community and fairly quickly get the lay of the land and be on equal footing with established residents. This is a form of egalitarianism. Imagine if all of Barcelona was the same form as that central part – the city would be incomprehensible to outsiders.

Obviously this can be used for good and for evil – the point about colonizers imposing grids is right on, but with a grid there is some tit for tat involved. If the sentry on the corner can see all the way down the street, so can the people living there.

for sure. the idea of the importance of welcoming outsiders is a pretty new thing, historically speaking, i think. i suspect that when barcelona (or wherever) was originally being settled, being welcoming to outsiders would be a weakness. knowing who can get around is a pretty good way to know who is a member of your community who can be trusted in a certain way, etc. i think the equivalent of this in modern gridded cities would be things like navigating one-way streets and pronouncing names right–like couch street here in portland, for example. oh, and understanding places where the grid breaks, like where the bridges across the river, i-84 or the train tracks are, or alameda ridge and such (often places where geography resists the grid). that said, i like the grid here, and it makes me feel in touch with the whole city, and with the whole city’s place in the larger geography, ’cause i always know what direction something is in.

A big thank for your articles on your PDC, it’s very appreciate and usefull to me !

[...] didn’t learn this bit during the class but instead from another PDC student blog.) Double spirals are also a common pattern in nature. For example, in pinecones, there are eight [...]



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