Saturday, July 2, 2011

Principles of Permaculture: Principle One - Observe and Interact

Holmgren's Twelve Principles of Permaculture

Principle One: Observe and Interact
Holmgren's Proverb for this Principle: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

To design Permaculture Systems, we must use nature as our guide.  The only way to use nature as our guide is to actually observe what nature is doing.  Take the time to sit and observe!  It is not wasted time.  Remember that Permaculture is 90% thinking and 10% work (where modern agriculture is far too often the exact opposite). 

I think there are two components of observation.  The first component of observation is general observation - what are you seeing?  That is it.  It is very easy to jump up the mental ladder from this point, but it is important to just observe.  For instance, let's say we are sitting at the edge of a field, and we see rabbits coming through a hole in a fence.  It is easy to jump to thinking, "Ah, we have rabbits on our property.  If they continue to come in here, we are going to have to get rid of them or block them or something to protect the garden we want to plant.  Should we use a fence or a..." 

Instead, try keeping a journal.  Write down that, "the rabbits entered field A through fence B at the hole at 7:00 pm.  They went right to the clover and ate for 15 minutes before leaving the way they came as soon as an owl swooped down and almost caught a young rabbit."

The second component of observation is the more scientific data collecting.  What are the high and low temperatures throughout the year?  What direction do the seasonal winds blow?  Where does the sun cast shade in each season?  What soil types do we have on our property?  What natural vegetation is there now (trees, shrubs, vines, etc.)?  What animals visit our property (deer, rabbit, species of birds, insects, etc.)?  Where does rain collect and/or run on our property? 

These are just a few of the site specific data we should collect before implementing a Permaculture System.  Bill Mollison recommended observing your site for a full year before doing anything else.  Most of us will not want to do this, but most of us can do this.  I highly recommend it.  It is what I am planning on doing.

Interaction is the second part of this first principle.  This is where we take action on the observations we made.  This is where we implement a change.  Using our example of the rabbits from above we may decide we are not going to keep a garden and want to increase your rabbit population to provide meat for our family without having to raise the livestock directly.  Then we could sow extra clover to attract and sustain them.  Or if we did want to keep the garden but didn't want to put in a fence, we could try to encourage the owls in our area.  We may decide to keep that dead tree the owls use (since we saw that owl fly over to the dead tree after it missed the rabbit).  We may decide a little depredation of our garden is worth a healthy ecosystem.  There are many possibilities.  Just remember Priciple Nine: Use Small and Slow Solutions

After we implement the change (i.e. our interaction), we must go back and observe again.  Did it work?  What other outcomes developed from this change?  Can we modifiy this more?  Do we need to?  Should we return things to how they were? 

Observation and Interaction are the first principle for a great reason... it is vital to creating a successful Permaculture System.  I'll end with a few quotes by David Holmgren about this first principle:

By taking the time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.
- David Holmgren

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

The proverb "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" reminds us that we place our own values on what we observe, yet in nature, there is no right or wrong, only different.
- David Holmgren


  1. The interpretation and explanation of Holmgren's principles given by John K are very well thought out and easy to follow. Well done!

  2. I have only just stumbled across your website but am very impressed already. The wealth of info, the lay-out of your site and your explanation of the Principles is by far the best I have seen. Thank you John, as a fellow Permi it is tremendous to have such a resource to refer to. Helen