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Permaculture Principle #1: Observe and Interact

By Tim Sonder, Education Chair

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder"

Observation is key to permaculture. Developing good observation skills is essential if we want to make well-functioning permaculture designs.

Although observation seems obvious, it is so often the step that is left out of the equation when we start a project. The world around us is full of examples of people acting without having really observed how the sun moves, how water flows, how the wind blows. This relates to Bill Mollison's philosophy of “work with nature, not against.” We have to know how nature works if we want to be able to work with it.

When you take the time to slow down and simply observe something—a plot of land, a group dynamic in your office or in your chicken flock, it gives you time to reflect on what is actually happening right in front of you. This gives you information that can be useful as you move forward in creating better, more efficient, and abundant designs for living.

The classic exhortation in permaculture is to observe your land for ONE YEAR before placing any permanent features (such as fruit trees or hardscaping). This gives you time to observe microclimates, the path of the sun, different types of soil in your plot, rainfall, neighbor impacts, and so on. When every action is a response to what you are actively observing, your efforts become more effective and there is less need to undo mistakes.

The most important thing in my mind about observing—really getting out there and taking the time to look, slowly, and watch over time—is you may find your assumptions were all wrong. So learn to see what is in front of you, and not what you imagine is there.

"Good design depends on a free and harmonious relationship between nature and people, in which careful observation and thoughtful interaction provide the design inspiration."—David Holmgren

Since we are usually dealing with complex systems — even a small garden can be incredibly diverse with many interactions — this principle suggests that we take a relatively cautious approach, that we make the smallest intervention that we think is necessary to make the change we want, and then closely observe the results. That way we can change, stop, or continue, depending on the results, without causing any big problems. You will see this in future principles.

Just observing makes nothing happen. Just acting can make problems bigger and bigger. We need to balance the two.