Traditional Observation Techniques for the Permaculture Designer
by Benjamin Weiss
This essay was originally published in the Permaculture Activist magazine, summer 2013 edition.
“Observe and interact” is the first design principle of permaculture as stated by David Holmgren, and observation is the first step of the scientific method, permaculture being a “design science.” All conscious human cognition and decision-making begins with observation. And, because permaculture is an effort to consciously create human systems, as opposed to the haphazard manifestation of modern, global, industrial culture, the cultivation of observation skills is absolutely vital to the practice of permaculture design.
In my experience as a teacher of the PDC during the last three years, the difficulty of transmitting to students the critical nature of observation skills as the foundation of sustainable design, not merely as a conceptual understanding, but as an insistence upon practice, has led me to focus on these skills for as much as a quarter of the curriculum of my classes. The maintenance and honing of these skills are an assurance of the integrity of permaculture design, an integrity for which each practitioner is responsible toward the global community of permaculturists.
While techniques such as measuring, mapping, sketching, fact-checking, historical research, interviews, statistical analysis, and zone and sector analysis are all indispensible forms of observation, there is a much more foundational level of observation technique, and there are other techniques, equally as sophisticated as those listed above, that have been marginalized, neglected, or forgotten by most modern sciences and disciplines. In this article I offer an introduction to an array of “nature awareness” skills and practices, all of which are rooted in indigenous and traditional world-views to which the concept of permaculture already owes so much. I have divided these techniques into three categories: those that rely primarily on the human body, the human mind, and the human emotions.
Techniques of the Body
The human body is the ultimate scientific tool. All other technologies that humans have created for gathering and analyzing data serve only to channel that information back into ourselves, and it is within the human being, not within a machine, that this data may become crystallized into understanding. All peoples who live in direct connection with the earth, that is, who work actively, daily, to gather the raw materials of their needs directly from their surrounding ecosystem rather than having these needs met by pre-fabricated products of industry, must cultivate foundational skills of “nature awareness,” or perish. The five (or six as I will examine below) body-based senses must be in tune. As a natural human moves through their environment to gather raw materials, the machinations of the mind must not wrench focus away from the data being received by the body. There is a stance, a walk, an alertness that we as humans are capable of; indeed, our bodies have evolved with the landscape and the community of organisms to be an impeccable tool, to thrive.
I first learned of this technique (really a set of techniques) eight years ago from Tom Brown’s book The Tracker, and I have been practicing daily ever since. I teach the foxwalk to my students early in the PDC, an exercise often met with confusion as to
how it relates to design. I encourage my students to practice and utilize the technique throughout the course. Few of my students earnestly follow through, although most seem, by the end of the course, to at least discern the potential value of the foxwalk to a permaculture designer. The technique consists of a posture and a step. The posture is quite similar to the basic stance taught in yoga classes. The chin is tucked slightly in toward the neck, the neck is held straight, and the jaw relaxed. The shoulders are rolled back to open the sternum, which naturally turns the palms slightly forward. The arms and hands are relaxed, the elbows and fingers naturally bent. The spine is held straight and erect. The front of the pelvis is tipped slightly up, placing a gentle pressure on the abdomen and helping the lower back to straighten. This tilting of the pelvis naturally tucks the tailbone down, but the large muscles of the upper legs (the glutes, hamstrings, and quads) should not be allowed to tense as a result. The knees never fully lock and are held gently bent, and the feet point forward, out through the second toe. I urge my students to practice standing in this posture for long periods of time outside of class, and to notice the sensations of their body, especially as they relate to their surroundings.
Once the body is in this posture, the step begins, the namesake of the foxwalk. One foot is lifted from heal first to toe last. This foot comes down nearly in front of the planted foot, as though the two big toes were perfectly in line. The foot does not land on the heal, however, as most modern people walk, but on the outside edge, and more specifically on the outside of the “ball,” at the first joint of the smallest toe. Next, the outside edge of the small toe and the heal come down simultaneously, and then the whole foot “rolls” inward until it is planted flat with toes splayed wide; “rolling” inward past the point of a planted foot is stressful on the knee and should be avoided. The pace of the walk can be extremely slow, minutes passing between each step, or swift as a jog or even a sprint.
This way of walking, especially done with bare feet, enables a person to move with incredible tact silently through wild terrain, and to feel subtle textures, temperatures, and vibrations underfoot. It is excellent for tracking and hunting, and is therefore excellent for making observations with the bodily senses with minimum disruption to what is being observed. If the subject of observation is a wild or semi-wild ecosystem, patterns will become evident to a person utilizing this technique that will otherwise be invisible to someone moving in a more disruptive manner. Gathering first-hand information and understanding of this sort is crucial to the permaculturist because our effort is to design human systems that follow the patterns of sustenance and abundance generated by wild, natural systems. I encourage my students to make Zone 4, the semi-wild margins of the landscape of civilization, into a laboratory for the study of natural patterns, and the foxwalk is the lab-coat of the sustainable design scientist. Nonetheless, this technique can be utilized everywhere, and the posture can be maintained subtly so as to be indiscernible to the unfamiliar onlooker. I walk the city streets of my neighborhood using the technique daily, observing the patterns of people, plants, and animals, and the cycles of the earth and the atmosphere as they erode the unadapting urban landscape.
Wide Angle Vision
For the foxwalk to be fully effective, the mind must be fully focused on the reception of sensory data. Wide angle vision is a technique that not only maximizes sensory reception, but helps the modern mind to silence thoughts and memories unconnected to the task at hand. Wide angle vision is simply the technique of allowing the conscious awareness to dwell in, or focus upon the peripheral vision, rather than the tunnel-vision that most modern people utilize so dominantly. Although I have listed this technique as one of the body, there is no actual bodily effort required. Our peripheral vision is always functioning, and this technique is merely a shifting of our attention onto the shapes, colors, textures, and motion being received thus. It is this influx of data and the simple effort to focus thereupon that silences the chatter of the mind. For many of my students, this shift and its effect are so elementary that it is not a matter of practice to utilize the technique, but a matter of remembering to break the habit of directly focusing on everything seen. Peripheral vision is specifically potent for noting motion, and as with foxwalking, this technique enables the user to notice many patterns only seen incidentally by the modern eye. Immersion in auditory perception is a similar technique with equal value, and many seasoned practitioners of these techniques, myself included, begin to notice a certain synesthesia; that is, the peripheral vision seems to blend gradually toward our sense of hearing in a kind of spherical encapsulation of sensory reception.
An Exercise of Adaptation
Part of the practice of foxwalking and utilizing wide angle vision is to resist the urge to constantly look down to check for obstacles as we step. Here is a delightfully simple exercise I offer my students to help them overcome this urge, and to understand that our bodies are perfectly suited for interaction with the surrounding environment:
Stand straight in the posture of the foxwalk, and focus your eyes directly forward,perpendicular to your vertical stance. Utilizing wide-angle vision, take one normal-sized pace forward, and notice whether or not you can see your toes as you step. Most people cannot. Now resume the stance, but this time allow your eyes to rest at their natural place of focus, which tends to be angled slightly downward. Now utilize wide angle vision and take one pace. Most of my students subsequently are able to see their toes as they step forward in this way.
With practice, the use of wide-angle vision with a relaxed eye allows us to see where we will step without actually looking down. This is an example of adaptation, of evolutionary interaction between the gradual growth and shaping of our bodies and our need for survival as hunters and gatherers, and now as conscious designers of civilization.
Techniques of the Mind
Pattern recognition is the root of intuition. The effort to master the body as a tool for the observation of the physical world empowers the mind to do the same. As the body becomes habituated to focus on certain details and patterns of the natural world, there is a certain mental acuity that develops that may seem foreign or even supernatural to “civilized” people. But there is nothing supernatural about this acuity; indeed it is absolutely natural for a human to maintain conscious, rather than passive, awareness of surrounding forces and flows.
In the book Wizard of the Upper Amazon, Manuel Cordova-Rios reports that among the Amahuaca Indians, with whom he lived for seven years, “there were a very few forest sounds that could not be identified,” and on one occasion he relates that the appearance of strange “bird-calls” alerted the people to the presence of enemies within their territory. The chief of these people had “knowledge of the forest for several days’ journey in all directions from the village (that) was phenomenal. This came from his own experience… and from the daily reports brought back by the hunters.” On numerous occasions in Cordova-Rios’ account the chief predicted or intuited the location of game and enemies, the coming of the rainy season, and the return of hunting parties to the village. In the book Aboriginal Men of High Degree, anthropologist A.P. Elkin asserts that “the various psychic powers attributed to (indigenous Australian medicine-men) must not be too readily dismissed as mere primitive magic and “make-believe,” for many of them have specialized in the working of the human mind, and in the influence of mind on body and mind on mind;” the implication being that the cultivation of an understanding of the mind leads to a greater capacity to utilize its abilities.
These abilities are unlocked through rigorous exercise. Techniques of sharpening mental acuity must precede the practice of the actual techniques of intuition which are essentially a reading of subtle changes in natural patterns, or as G.I. Gurdjieff names them: “lawful inexactitudes.” Of this Elkin states: “At the back of these claims to various psychic powers… is the fact that Aborigines spend much of their time with their own thoughts, reflecting on dreams, and being ready, at any moment, to enter a condition of receptivity,” and that “the temptation is to think that an Aborigine sitting down, apparently dreaming, is doing nothing. But he may be engaged in serious meditational and psychic discipline.” It is far beyond the scope of this article to outline specific meditational practices, however, I encourage serious students of permaculture who wish to achieve a lucid grasp of the surrounding ecology to adopt a meditational discipline. Meditation systems geared specifically toward “nature awareness” have been put forward by contemporary educators such as Jon Young and Starhawk who encourage students to utilize a technique often called the “sit-spot” or “power place” respectively. In my own life, I currently utilize Buddhist techniques learned from the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh and the Shambhala tradition, methods from Kabbalistic Judaism, and I practice Aikido as well. These efforts have lent an ineffable benefit to both my ability to make observations, and to logically analyze this data.
Previously, in this article, I mentioned the possibility of there being a “sixth sense.” By this, I was referring to the human ability to perceive and experience emotions. Whether or not these emotions arise from within does not negate our ability to sense them. And in actuality, we have many more than five or six senses (we can sense physical pain, the passage of time, temperature fluctuations, balance, posture etc). In his book The Secret Teachings of Plants in the Direct Perception of Nature, Stephen Harrod Buhner, the great contemporary herbalist, healer, writer, and teacher explains in yeoman’s terms much of the recent research on the heart as an organ of perception through information encoded in electromagnetic fields. Buhner states that:
“Plant nervous systems are as highly sensitive to electromagnetic fields as ours… They can, in fact, detect and respond to electromagnetic signals, as can all organisms. And we, like plants, are evolutionarily designed to encounter such fields… The meanings embedded within those fields, experienced by us as emotions, affect the heart’s rate, hormonal cascade, pressure waves, and neurochemical activity. Directed emotions– intentional, informational, electromagnetic embeds sent outward– affect those external electromagnetic fields in turn. Through such directed communication and perception, a living dialogue occurs between us and the world.”
The implications of this science go well beyond the common experience the evocation of emotions by a certain architecture, season, or landscape. That humans may actually consciously decode information embedded in electromagnetic signals by plants, animals, rocks, or topography into applicable knowledge sheds light on the origins of the incredible technologies and understandings of non-industrial peoples. For our purpose as permaculturists, a mere recognition of the significance of emotional information is an invaluable tool for the observation of nature, and subsequently for the design of sustainable systems.
An Exercise in the Origin of Emotion
I have experimented with a number of exercises in my permaculture classes to help students take the observation of emotions more seriously, and to begin to recognize natural patterns that come to us through the heart. These exercises have been difficult to integrate into the curriculum mainly due to the fact that many of my students have a frank disbelief that there is actually applicable information to be gathered from emotions. So I have settled upon this very basic exercise:
Go to an outdoor location that features a prominent view of both buildings and natural scenery, especially plants and trees. Spend one half-hour in this location by yourself, changing your vantage point every five minutes. In a notebook, record every emotion that you sense, regardless of origin. It is imperative to this exercise that you not only record emotional responses to the scenery and happenings at the location, but also emotions that you may feel from thoughts, memories, or daydreams that arise within you seemingly unrelated to your current experience. Your notes should consist of a name of an emotion felt and the accompanying experience that elicits the feeling. For example: I see a church, I feel solemn; I am hungry, I feel anxious, etc. At the end of the half-hour, the list should be sorted between emotions elicited by the chosen location, and emotions elicited by some other source.
There are two important results to be seen from this exercise. The first is that we experience emotional reactions to both tangible and intangible, present and non-present experiences. The second is that most of our emotional responses are predictable and follow a pattern. The fact that viewing certain colors, looking at trees or buildings, watching various interactions between other people, or recalling certain ideas or memories evoke similar emotional responses in everybody constantly amazes my students. We have such an innate sense of emotional patterning that many people are not consciously aware of it. But, again, a conscious observation of our emotions lends an increasing clarity to natural patterns. Stephen Harrod Buhner offers more advanced techniques of emotional information gathering in his book Sacred Plant Medicine, Dr. Ibrahim Kareem’s BioGeometry institute carries out fascinating research on human reactions to shape, and the science behind “sacred space,” and the late Masanobu Fukuoka, the developer of the techniques of “natural farming,” writes in all three of his books about the direct perception of nature through a non-rational emotional exploration.
Again, advanced techniques for the extrapolation of information from emotions is beyond the scope of this article, but a basic recognition of emotions is vital to nature awareness. This awareness, integrated into the techniques of foxwalking and wide-angle vision, and bolstered by meditational practices, leads the practitioner to an ability to turn the self, the human being, into an impeccable tool for the observation of nature. And, again, it is this observation only that will allow us to understand the deep patterns of the biosphere, our home, and to redesign civilization in an ecologically sound way.
Brown Jr., Tom: The Tracker; Berkley, 1978.
Buhner, Stephen Harrod: Sacred Plant Medicine: The Wisdom in Native American Herbalism; Bear & Co., 1996.
Buhner, Stephen Harrod: The Secret Teachings of Plants in the Direct Perception of Nature; Bear & Co., 2004.
Elkin, A.P.: Aboriginal Men of High Degree; St, Martin’s Press, 1945.
Holmgren, David: Permaculture Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability; Holmgren Design Services, 2002.
Lamb, F. Bruce: Wizard of the Upper Amazon; Houghton Mifflin, 1971.