The Detail and the Devil. (part 1 of 3)

What follows is a candid history of my experience so far with Permaculture Landscape Design. I am sharing this in an effort to shine some light on what I see as problems with our cultures understanding and expectation of design; be it Architectural, Landscape, Permaculture or whatever.

During my early work as a designer I would spend many hours slaving over arrangements and exact dimensions of and spacing between different components of a design in an exhaustive effort to achieve a high degree of accuracy. My desire was to be able to deliver a precise and comprehensive solution for the client’s situation. I was choosing plant species and varieties and placing them precisely on paper, along with access, fences, buildings, chicken runs, gardens, ponds, seats, propagation facilities, swales etc.
My goal was to provide as much detail about every part/element of the design all in one hit. I was often unable to do this due to major time overruns, lack of specific technical expertise; or my mind was just not capable of holding all the various aspects in place for long enough to work it all out. When this happened I felt as if I had failed in some way.

Looking back on those experiences 10 years down the track, I can see that I had failed, but I had failed at an impossible task. The very concept of putting all that detail (usually equating to many years’ worth of development work) into one design at one point in time and then expecting that it will be carried out over the years based on this design are, I would say now – quite deluded and the results a potential disaster. It seems to me now that this sort of design would be more accurately referred to as “a fictional projection” which quickly becomes a “historical fictional projection” and lacking in relevance to the current reality on the ground. Disaster is avoided by many people who simply won’t follow such a fiction to the letter. They will realise its shortcomings and modify it to suit as they go, even if they feel like a naughty school kid for disobeying the plan. This is not the case for everyone unfortunately and some folk have been so disempowered and dazzled by the supposed brilliance of the experts that they will put aside their doubts and do their utmost to bring the drawing they paid for into reality.
I put huge effort into those early designs and felt an equally large level of anxiety about the outcome. It’s fair to say that I wasn’t at home in the role, it consumed me at the time and afterwards I had great doubts about whether my suggestions were “right” and whether they would work out. I should mention at this point that despite my personal uncertainties, the clients were always happy with my work and I think that it was good work in so far as it was able to be. However, I decided that I wasn’t cut out to be a Permaculture designer, because I wasn’t enough of a genius to work it all out correctly. So I got on with other things, like teaching general sustainability and gardening/horticulture through the local Polytech and developing our own place. I started a sourdough bread and fresh vegetable business with my brother, and mostly stayed away from design. I did one more paid design job for a student’s property during that time and that project solidified my doubts as to the appropriateness of coming up with an on-paper design at all. The concept, I decided was fundamentally flawed and I would not be seeking out any more such work.
I kept with this outlook for a number of years, including during the early development of our current 11 acre block. We decided that the best way forward for us here was to have a clear big picture direction for the property and make as few decisions as possible towards it at any one time. That way there was plenty of room for future decisions to be influenced by the new reality that was created by each prior decision.

Now, I was feeling a bit naughty myself at this point because I was, in most other ways, well on-board with the Permaculture approach. But design is so crucial to Permaculture, and here I was not putting pen to paper at all, unless you count a pile of scrawling ideas and sketches. Was I a real Permaculture guy? Or was I off the rails?

thomas derailed

Read part 2 of this 3 part post

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