This is the second in a series of posts drawing out some of the applications and implications of permaculture principles for life, work, and mission (you can find the first post here: “Food Forests and Change Management”).
In this post, I want to look at the concept (and practice) of Observation — which happens to be the first principle of permaculture (as articulated by one of the ‘fathers’ of permaculture, David Holmgren).
It’s a simple but profound thought: you need to know the site before you start designing your garden/food forest/whatever. If you don’t adequately understand what you’re working with, you’ll no doubt run into trouble later on due to unsuitable plant selection, misplacement of structures, unhelpful drainage, and a whole host of other problems. You need to know the site before you do anything, and then start interacting with it slowly.
A good place to start is by ‘mapping’ the trajectory of the sun over the site. How much sun does the site get? What are the patterns of shade? What does this mean in regards to the temperature (and temperature variations) of the site? How does this change throughout the year with the different seasons? (Yes, this last point means that, ideally, you would observe the site for a full 12 months before starting!)
Then there’s water. What happens when it rains? Does water flow through the site, or are there existing structures (creeks, dams, or gutters) that direct the movement of the water? Does it flood? Can water be saved on site for later use? How often does it rain, how much average annual rainfall is there, and in which months does most rain fall?
There’s wind (Does the wind blow harshly through the site? What does this mean for plants?), soil (Are you starting with reasonably healthy soil, or is there lots of work to be done?), microclimates (Are there smaller niches within the broader site that create slightly different conditions?), life (Does the site currently include habitat for local animals/birds? If so, which ones? What about bugs, insects, and other creepy-crawlies?), and the list goes on.
The point is, of course, that all this information can feed into much better designs (and fewer unforeseen problems).
It also needs to be noted that observation is a practice. The best kind of observation comes by actually being present on site and seeing it at all points of the day (and night), through all the seasons and in all kinds of weather. It takes time to notice what animals are present (and when), and it takes getting down close to the ground to check out the creepy-crawlies!
If you come in with pre-made decisions, you will almost certainly get a lot of things wrong. Sure, you might be lucky with some of the plant placements or avoid flooding when it rains heavily by fluke, but overall your design (and the site itself) will suffer due to impatience and lack of site knowledge.
It seems to me that there are some good keys in this when it comes to how churches interact with their neighbourhoods and local communities.
So often, it feels like churches are fixated on one-size-fits-all approaches to engaging with those around them. We dive headlong into some ready-made program, or we head out into our communities with pre-written answers to questions they’re not asking or with well-intended ‘help’ that hasn’t been requested. And we wonder why people look at us funny!
What would it looks like for us to genuinely observe our local community before we tried any of our quick-fix approaches? What would we discover if we actually spent time in the community —physically present as we walked the streets and had real conversations with real people (where we actually listened) — before we did anything else? What might we learn if we ‘dug around’ a bit before we started doing stuff?
My guess is that we’d learn a lot.
We’d discover not just the ‘problems’ (that’s the easy part), but we’d also discover the strengths of the community. We’d learn about how the community ‘sees itself at its best’, and we’d quickly learn who are the people or groups who get stuff done (Hint: these ‘movers and shakers’ are good people to start building relationships with). We’d start to understand the local economy, figure out which groups and organisations are already present (which is really helpful if we’re not going to double-up on things that are already happening!), and we’d get to know the local natural and built environment.
We’d know our community, and this is a really great foundation from which to start interacting. Slowly. So often I see churches try to rush into genuine community engagement, and the result is either that they bite off more than they can chew, or they discover the law of unintended consequences. If you start out all gung-ho and you’re not around 12 months later because it all got too much, or if you go in so hard that you put people off-side, then you’ve probably done more damage than if you’d not started to begin with. We need to start slowly, building trust, and following through with what we say.