Overstory #9 - Observation
Letting Nature Show Us What Works: Observation
Sustainability is about working with nature, rather than against it. We can choose to impose our own agenda (often at great expense to ourselves and to the local ecology), or we can appreciate the forces and processes that exist on the land, and work with them to benefit ourselves and the environment at the same time. The way to begin working with nature is to start by observing it, noticing and appreciating what nature is doing on a site. The observation process is a key tool that means the difference between results that are ecologically sound, and ones that are not. Observation is about letting nature teach us what works.
A well known permaculture teacher, Lea Harrison of Australia, recounts that as she was starting out, she was unable to work on her farm for an entire year as a result of a motorcycle accident. She was forced by her injury to sit back and watch her fallow land from the balcony of her house, and she couldn't DO anything! While frustrating at first, in retrospect she realized that waiting that whole year to observe natural processes on her land enhanced her farm design tremendously, lowering her overall costs and resulting in higher yields and reduced maintenance.
Lea's situation forced her to observe, but for most if us it takes restraint and patience to practice the permaculture design principle: Prolonged and thoughtful observation rather than prolonged and thoughtless labor. The tendency is to see the land in terms of what we want it to be, what we can make of it, rather than take time to notice what is going on naturally, without any effort on our part.
Observation should be done before planning a project, or preparing the site and are essential for any kind of sustainable land use: farm or forestry plantings, situating buildings, installing water catchment, and so on. Even if a site is already partially or fully developed, observation is still a valuable exercise. There may be a lot going on that you don't know about!
First of all, let go for the moment of your ideas and visions, and look around with no agenda but to experience what is going on around you. The most important thing is to notice WHAT IS SO, setting aside temporarily thoughts of what COULD BE.
The observation process begins with a walk around the perimeter of the site. Take a pad of paper and pen; a compass, site level and a camera are also useful. Make a sketch of the property as you walk, taking care to note every observation, and document visual observations with photos or a sketch. Allow all your senses to be active: see, hear, smell, touch, feel, sense the whole. It works best to let the mind flow with all details, rather than editing out what may seem to be inconsequential.
If the property is overgrown, walk, crawl and push through into all areas. This initial visit to an undisturbed site will reveal many secrets. (We once were lazy and avoided an overgrown corner of a farm site, only to discover later that the area was an old house site filled with valuable food plants, intricate terraces and rock walls!)
Important features to look for are land contour, the health and type of plants (noticing different plant assemblies, or variations in lushness in different areas), soils, visual and other pollutants, previous land use, signs of animals and birds, and special features. Evidence of surface erosion or other water patterns, past damage from high winds, and destructive grazing by cattle or goats are also important indicators to look for.
As the walk proceeds, make note of anything you perceive. All of your observations can have importance, no matter how insignificant they seem at first. Useful design features can be deduced out of apparently immaterial observations. Seemingly ordinary plants may have value, or close relatives might be desirable and will grow in the same niche. You may even discover that plants that at first appeared to you as weeds are identified as valuable medicinal plants; these days many weeds are fast becoming tomorrow's medicines. Perhaps previous cultivation or animal tracks have left clues of what might succeed in your area. It is also useful to note down the absence of something (such as, "no wind here").
After walking the perimeter of the site, you will have a good idea of contour, plant flora, access, and other general features. Now, explore the interior of the site. It will be well worth the effort to trek throughout the site coming into areas from various angles, all the while making notes on your observations. Ideally, make several visits to the site, during different seasons and weather conditions (when it is raining, when it is very windy, during drought, etc.). It is also valuable to observe what is going on in neighboring sites. As you make observations over several visits to a site, collect them on a large scale map for later reference.
Using Your Observations
Observations are lessons about natural processes. Keep notes of your observations. Over time, you will notice yourself beginning to use them as you make changes in your practices. For example, keeping an observation log enables you to:
- Take advantage of natural processes (variations in soil depth, accumulation of organic matter, especially wet or dry microclimates) as you develop your plantings or buildings.
- Plan for disasters like high winds, fires, or floods (because you were able to know the areas most affected by these in the past, and what survives)
- Monitor changes in your site over time
Working with nature will repay your observation efforts many times over!
Any permaculture design course includes substantial training and exercises in observation. Our teachers were Max Lindegger, Lea Harrison and Jerome Osentowski, who still offer excellent courses.
We often recommend Bill Mollison's excellent Permaculture: A Practical Guide for a Sustainable Future, a comprehensive guide to permaculture in all climatic zones, published by Ten Speed Press and available from many bookstores.
Bill Mollison and Reny Mia Slay's Introduction to Permaculture, is a very complete introduction and is essential reading for starting a sustainable project, published by Ten Speed Press.
Fukuoka, Mansanobu. 1978. The One Straw Revolution, Rodale Press. Documents rice cultivation based on observation of nature. This title is out-of-print, but is very much worth looking for in used bookstores.
About the Authors
Kim M. Wilkinson is the Education Director for Permanent Agriculture Resources and editor of The Overstory. She has B.A. degrees in Anthropology and Ecology from Emory University.
Craig R. Elevitch is an agroforestry specialist with more than ten years of public and private sector experience in tropical agroforest and forest management. He has a M.S. degree in Electrical Engineering (Dynamical Systems) from Cornell University.
Related Editions to The Overstory
- The Overstory #76--Ethnoforestry
- The Overstory #72--Microenvironments (Part 2)
- The Overstory #49--Traditional Pacific Island Agroforestry Systems
- The Overstory #34--Forest Islands
- The Overstory #31--Tree Domestication
- The Overstory #18--Designing Resource Systems
- The Overstory #15--Cultivating Connections with Other Farmers