“Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time”
– Georgia O’Keefe
To truly see one flower takes as much time as it takes to make a new friend. We can assume, then, that to truly see an entire landscape might take a lifetime. Yet, seeing a landscape truly and in its entirety is a critical task that every permaculture designer must learn to do. We need to know the entire landscape like an old friend. We need to know its history and its aspirations, its preferences and desires, its quirky habits – good and bad. We need to know how it behaves in the light of day, when strangers are present – and how it behaves in the dark of night, when it is all alone and no one is looking.
Too often, when we approach a new permaculture site, haste and excitement take over. We quickly develop grand visions in our mind of the completed design, with key elements springing to the forefront of our mental pictures and our rough sketches on paper. But at this early stage in the design process, haste must be avoided at any cost. Patient observation, instead, is required now. And patience at this pivotal point is the cornerstone upon which successful permaculture projects are built.
Indeed, observation is the very foundation of permaculture, and this is why observation is the first principle we learn. Thorough observation allows us to design effectively and with confidence; knowing that we are working with, rather than against, the natural patterns and processes of the site we are developing. Without observation, a design is likely to conflict with the natural elements of a site. And so observation is the sine qua non of permaculture – that without which no project can be successful.
How to Approach a New Site
Approach a new permaculture site much like you would approach a new friend. Taking this approach, you will first focus on a pleasant introduction. Be mindful not to come on too strong; after all, you’ve only just met. No cheesy pickup lines, and no overzealous attempts to impress. A warm smile and a humble handshake will do just fine. After you have made your best first impression, continue to put your best foot forward and schedule a few casual meetings to get to know your site better. Engage in thoughtful conversation, go for a leisurely stroll, sit down in the shade and share some laughs together – just be yourself and you can’t go wrong. And when you’ve established a good rapport, if all goes well you’ll be ready to begin getting to know your site more intimately. Please allow at least 3 meetings, and don’t rush your site if it is not ready!
As you get more intimate with your new site, your bonds will grow ever stronger. You will learn about its past, its potential, and its most closely guarded secrets. With patience, you will soon find yourself in a lasting and faithful relationship. Congratulations, you will have made a new old friend. And it is from the perspective of this meaningful friendship that a permaculture designer can truly excel, painting a masterpiece on the most complex canvas available – life.
The Introduction – Putting Your Best Foot Forward
When you meet your new site, don’t worry about taking detailed notes. There will be plenty of time later to focus on specific details. Instead, turn your early attention to the energy you feel as you walk the ground. Use all of your senses to survey the site, noting the energy and experiences you encounter at the highest level. What are the smells, sights, sounds, and feelings that grab your attention? Bring with you as little of your own energy as possible – you are here to observe an established ecosystem as an outsider. The energy you project should be passive and non-threatening. Conduct your initial observation under the assumption that you will make minimal changes to the existing landscape.
As you move about, note any energy you experience that beckons to you and draws you in. And note any energy you experience that repels you and drives you away. Note the locations where you experience these differing energies – which areas of your site are warm and inviting; with soft soil, tender leaves, and sweet smells. And notice which areas are more coarse and guarded; protected by prickly spines or rocky terrain.
Notice the general contour of the land – the predominant slopes, planes, ditches, and hills. At this stage you are focusing only on becoming aware of the features present. You will have time to plot elevations and draw individual features in detail after you have finished making your initial introductions.
Who are the obvious stakeholders that instantly make themselves known to you? Are there mighty trees, social birds, aggressive insects, or curious critters? These friendly neighbors are only the tip of the iceberg, and you should know that for every stakeholder you meet today, there are perhaps ten more that you will meet in the future as you become more intimate with the site.
As you begin to absorb the site’s energy and become familiar with its inhabitants and features, give thanks. Give thanks for every observation you are able to make. Recognize the splendor and abundance that is already present here. Your goal is to build upon the resources that nature has already planted here, and to maximize the abundance that already exists.
The First Few Meetings – Getting to Know Your Site
Now that you are familiar with the top-level terrain features, stakeholders, and natural patterns, you are ready to begin delving deeper. Subsequent visits to the site should be as varied as possible, in an attempt to observe as many as possible of the natural phenomena that exist on your site. Visit in the early morning hours to watch the sun rise on the land. Visit in the heat of the afternoon when the sun’s rays are at the peak of their intensity. Visit in the evening as the sun sets and the land cools, and stay to observe the area after night has fallen.
Spend some time looking further into the energies you felt during your initial introduction to the site. Try to begin defining the zones of energy and begin to sketch the borders of the different zones you find. Approach each area slowly and with reverence, because as you approach and enter you will change the energy and activity taking place there. Allow yourself time to sit or lay down in each area, and wait patiently as the land slowly returns back to its routine and comes back to life with you and your energy now blended in to the whole. Remain silent and passive until your presence is accepted by all, and then continue to be quiet and respectful – you are the newcomer here.
Begin to take more detailed notes. Expand the list of stakeholders that you met during your first visits. Take note of every living thing that lives in, makes use of, or simply passes through your site. There is no way for you to build a conclusive list of stakeholders – some of them are hidden from your view within the soil or in the canopy overhead, some of them are too small for you to see, and some of them are only present for a short season each year. But build your list as best you can, knowing that the decisions you make will be better informed with each new stakeholder you can identify. During the early morning and again at dusk, watch the wooded areas and any water sources for larger animals who may pass through regularly. Listen carefully for rustling leaves and identify the source of every sound you hear. Watch for rabbits on the ground, squirrels in the trees, beavers, chipmunks, porcupines, raccoons and skunks. Examine the ground for burrows and determine who did the burrowing. Look for amphibians and reptiles by gently lifting stones and fallen limbs. Look carefully in every nook and cranny. For each animal you identify, ask yourself – what do they eat? Where do they live? And, what eats them?
Locate the spaces on your site that are used by birds. There may be understory thickets where mixed flocks congregate. There may be open meadows where birds scavenge for seeds and insects. There may be seasonal birds that use your site as a mating ground each year, or only as a short haven during long seasonal migrations.
Note the insects that you observe flying and walking in each zone. What do they eat? Where do they live? What eats them?
While the animals and insects that have a stake in your site will be numerous, they are probably dwarfed in numbers by the plant stakeholders. Even if your site is relatively homogenous, a close inspection will likely reveal a staggering diversity of plant life, and each of these plants is a stakeholder in your design. If your site has a diversity of terrain – open meadows, dense forests, rocky hillsides, wet marshland, etc. – the job of identifying plant stakeholders will compound exponentially with each different terrain. If horticulture is not your strong suit, don’t get hung up here by trying to identify each and every species you find. It’s fine to classify things in groups like “leafy annual weeds” or “shrubby understory trees.” But if you can identify each and every species, go for it. Your design will be stronger with each stakeholder you understand. I recommend starting with the largest plants and working your way down. Identify the trees that make up the canopy. Next, identify the understory trees and shrubs, woody perennials, grasses, leafy annuals, and groundcovers. Take the time to hunt for miniature plants, too – mosses, liverworts, and algae. You might find large stands of moss on east-facing slopes and the north side of large tree trunks, and you’re likely to find liverworts growing from the nooks in dead branches.
After a rain, watch for flowering fungi to reveal themselves above the ground. Fungi can tell you a lot about the soil properties of an area, and they should typically be welcomed and left undisturbed whenever possible.
And finally, look for the lowly lichens. Even in the most inhospitable spots on your site, you are likely to find some lichen clinging onto rocks in the full southern sun – a symbiotic teaming of algae and fungus that can establish a foothold for larger life forms in the harshest environments. Lichens expose the potential for life where none seems possible.
When you have sufficiently identified your stakeholders, you are ready to examine the elements. Here you will need to understand sunshine, water, wind, and soil – and how each interacts with your site.
Depending on the size and complexity of your site, a rough sketch may be all you need to understand the sun and shade. Sometimes the structure of shade is simple – a heavily wooded area is mostly shaded, and a wide open area is mostly sunny. Buildings, large trees, and forest edges can greatly complicate shade structure on a site. There are some tools available online that can help you to accurately draw shadows for simple shade structure by inputting your latitude and choosing the desired season. For very complex shade structure, a simpler approach is to sketch the shade as you observe it on a simple top-down drawing or map of the site. On your drawing, use colored pencils to lightly shade the areas that are shaded from the sun at regular intervals over the course of a day. As an example, you might draw the shade lightly in gray at 9 am, in green at noon, in red at 3 pm, and in blue at 6pm. The darkest areas are the shadiest, and the different colors reveal which areas get morning sunlight with afternoon shade, etc. In most regions it is advisable to chart your shade in different seasons throughout the year to account for differences in the angle of the sun. While it is important to draw the shade on paper for planning and reference, these drawings are only a guide. When the time comes to select plants and locate plantings, your personal knowledge of the site should be the final consideration.
Water is a powerful force in nature, and it would be hard to overstate the importance of understanding how water interacts with your site. You can get a good general idea about how water will flow across the land by plotting the elevation and contour of the property. Your county or state may have already done this work for you, and a call to your regional geographic survey service could save you hours of hard work and headache here. If no topographic maps exist for your site, you can use a laser level to accurately show contour and transfer the laser lines by drawing them onto your plan. Or you can find the contour manually by walking the site with a bunyip water level and marking the contour with flags or markers as you go. However you get elevation and contour lines onto your plan, these again are only a guide to inform your decision-making as you progress your design. There is simply no substitute for standing on the property during a heavy rain and watching the water move over the land with your own eyes. Note any spots where the contour of the land causes drainage or run-off. Note any channels with high volumes of water flow. Compare what you see to your contour maps, and note any differences between what you expected to see and what you actually saw.
The effects of wind on a permaculture site can be very subtle and hard to observe. Wind’s effect on an area plays out invisibly – both in the short term as changes in air temperature, and in the long term as erosion and accretion. Learn the prevailing wind directions for your region in different seasons, and then walk your site while envisioning the prevailing winds in both winter and summer. Can you identify existing pockets of protection where a wind screen is already established? Remember that a living wind screen is only effective in winter if the plants that make up the screen are evergreen. And, the smaller the leaf (or needle), the more effective the wind screen – large leaves block the sun well, but the wind blows right through them. Are there large areas that are void of any protection, completely exposed to harsh winter winds? Those same areas will likely enjoy a gentle breeze in spring and summer. Try to identify areas where winter winds may be a concern, and where summer winds may be an asset.
Intimacy – Establishing a Deeper Connection with Your New Site
Now that you’ve spent some time getting to know your new permaculture site through patient observation, you’re ready to take things to the next level. Here you will delve deeper – into your site’s energy and into its soil – to establish a stronger connection with the land.
Much of what you can learn about the soil, you will already know through careful observation of the plant life throughout the site. Plants can expose much information about soil depth and fertility, without requiring you to even pick up a spade. Now you will make a more focused effort to understand the soil. Walk your site again, this time with a spade, and pay special attention to the soil. Identify areas where the soil feels especially soft and fluffy, or especially hard and rocky. In each area you identify, randomly select a few spots and sink your spade. Pop up a small sampling of the topsoil and take notes on what you find. Is the soil dry, light in color, and full of rocky substrate – or is it dark, heavy, and full of organic material? What life do you find in the soil? Are there worms, grubs, or beetles? Are there thin white strands of mycorrhizae – the fungal filaments that help plants feed? Smell the soil – crumble it in your hand and inhale its essence through your nose – healthy soil has a distinct smell and with practice your nose is a valuable tool to identify problems in the soil. Note any off-putting smells and plot them on your plan to investigate later. Notice the composition of the soil – is there a large concentration of sand, clay, or silt? Does the soil crumble with light pressure – indicating a coarse texture, or is it solid like a rock – indicating a fine clayey texture? You can do a simple test yourself by filling a mason jar one third of the way full with topsoil and then adding water to fill the jar, leaving an inch at the top for air. Seal the jar and shake it vigorously for fifteen or twenty minutes. When the particles settle, they will settle with the largest sand particles at the bottom, and the finest clay particles at the top. In this way you can see a simple visual representation of the composition of your soil. Depending on your plans for each area, you may wish to send a soil sample in to your local university agricultural extension, or a privately owned lab. Be sure to read their instructions thoroughly to get the most accurate information from the test.
Return to each of the energy zones you identified in your initial introduction, and do a closer inspection now that you are more familiar with the site, this time on a micro level. Become intimate with the different energies of your site. Stop to meditate in each area at length, alternating between keeping your eyes open and allowing them to close. Notice any subtle changes in the way that you feel in the different areas. Take your shoes off and slowly fox walk the entire site – notice where the energy changes, and examine the edges that separate the different areas of your site.
Look for microclimates within the terrain. Find areas where a change in contour or elevation creates a small pocket of exceptional conditions – a depression in the ground can create a wet spot, and a sudden drop in elevation can create a pocket of protection from the wind and sun. Note each microclimate that you find and plot it on your plan.
Survey your site to begin understanding its history. Can you identify areas where water and wind have created pockets of deep soil through accretion? Are there other areas where water and wind have eroded the soil over time? Which areas have sustained old growth with a developed canopy, which have been managed and mowed, and which are recovering from having been clear cut in the recent past? Look for telltale pioneer plants that are reestablishing dense growth in an area where the old growth has been removed. Examine the surface rocks that you find throughout your site, both small rocks that have been pushed up through the soil and larger outcroppings where the bedrock shows through – are these rocks all made of the same materials; if so what are they? An exposed cliff can give you a glimpse into the ancient history of your site, showing the gradual development of the land over recent centuries and millennia. For a fresh perspective, try to find a nearby highpoint where you can view your site from afar, in light of the surrounding terrain.
And finally, do a little comparative analysis. Visit several nearby sites and do a quick survey of the plants, animals, and soil conditions that you find there. Are there any notable differences between your site and similar sites in the region? If so, try to understand what causes these differences and try to understand whether the relative differences on your site are desirable or not.
Moving Forward in a Faithful Relationship
When you have truly attempted to understand your site, its energies, its stakeholders, and its history, then you will be ready to begin planning changes. Edit carefully and thoughtfully – always showing respect, faith, and gratitude for your new friend. Apply the principles of permaculture to identify solutions and maximize abundance. Because you have observed the site thoroughly, you will have confidence that the changes you create will work with, and not against, the processes and phenomena that define the nature of your site. Most of all, celebrate the satisfaction that this new relationship will bring to you and your site – good friends are truly hard to come by.
Reprinted with permission from Permaculture Design Magazine, Volume #98, Fall 2015
Awe inspiring, well thought out and intuitive information for any one who wishes to bond with nature and the land. This article is going to my archives just in case I ever have the opportunity to once again live in a special place.
Good news for you Sharon – anywhere can be a Special Place! Even cities, deserts, slums…. Let’s improve the place where we are!
Great article! Thanks!
Lots of good advice and information…but as for feeling the energy, and reverence for it…. I would rather urge a reverence for the Creator. He is obviously the source of energy and ought to receive honor, since no one of us can create such a vast, amazing and orderly universe.
“You turn things around!
Shall the potter be considered as equal with the clay,
that what is made should say to its maker, ‘He did not make me’;
or what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘He has no understanding’?” (Isaiah 29:16)
Michael, thank you for your insightful article. Your continued references to the energy of the site are excellent! Some will be very subtle. At my last place, I found many energy variations. Thank you for the article. It’s going in my “files”.
Thoughtful article Michael. Makes one think you might be an Indian when reading it (American Indian).
Just more aware of your surroundings as you describe things. I do organic gardening myself so I know. Very rare to find someone describing the environment like you have. I am sure you are a
very real and grounded person. Such people know how to produce real products and understand
what fair exchange is. Thanks for your article!
This is mostly feelgood fuzz–not helpful to someone who is actually confronting the challenge of design, which involves making difficult choices that have sometimes huge consequences.