Observe & Interact: Effective observation
The first permaculture principle promoted by David Holmgren is observe and interact, "Good design depends on a free and harmonious relationship between nature and people, in which careful observation and thoughtful interaction provide the design inspiration."
Practicing skilful observation is therefore a skillflex needed by all ecosocial designers, see some additional tips from my experience here. At Brook End I completed a full cycle analysis, a dedicated year of observations following all the seasons. When completing designs for others we may not have this option but we can still imagine landforms over the changing seasons, using tools such as sun diagrams.
Skillful observation also link to social pattern reading, the social and emotional patterns of our lives are key indicators of interventions needed e.g. Is the garden too overwhelming to manage? How much psychological space is needed, do boundaries need to be designed in?
Tools for Surveying the Land
To successfully survey a site, you need to gather information not just from the land itself through observations and physical surveying but through background research and mapping.
Information can be harvested and made useful by:
- Creating field maps through measuring & surveying
- Collating information from maps e.g. historical maps, OS/promap data
- Collating information from background research (see below)
I have labelled this section 'holistic surveying' to define it for surveying that takes us beyond the reductionist measuring to the rich complexity of exploring an ecosystem and its elements.
Tools & methods for holistic surveying
- Multisensory - Using all of the senses to record information e.g. Do any soils smell anaerobic? Do fruit tree branches feel healthy and strong?
- Multiweather - Being outside in all weathers; feeling the rain, exploring the snow, facing the wind, can all highlight microclimates and flows through the space.
- Spiritual practice outside - Talking to the spirits & elementals of the land for their design support & feedback (the day after I requested permission to design for Brook End a rabbit's tail was left outside my front door)
- Multiobservations - Using multiple sets of eyes: Having 6 other permaculture designers stay for a weekend workshop gifted me with insights & observations I could not see on my own
- Working with 'non-expert' eyes - Gardeners & pemaculture designers see land in a certain way, no matter how much we try to stop, attempting to not design is a challenge. People not trained in these crafts can make fantastic, common-sense judgements (like that space is too small for a lawnmower) because they have different mental processes & priorities
- Experiment with using the space - How does it feel when there are 30 people there for a weekend gathering? Or 60 for a camp? How do the paths change? What risk of erosion is there? How does it feel with just a partner, how does it feel to make love on this grass?
- Get off the beaten track - Sometimes going to places you don't usually e.g. under hedges or in nettle patches can reveal useful observations & different perspectives.
The design questionnaire or client interview is probaly one of, if not the most important aspects of design. Effectively capturing the wants, needs, fears and worries of a client enhances the leverage of acceptance and implementation.
Patrick whitefield in his Earth Care manual describes how beneficial it is to keep in the receptive role of listening and to not start making recommendations immediately. At Brook End this was part of my full cycle of observation and listening and I've detailed the advantages of different client interview techniques below:
|A formally recorded session||People think carefully about what they are saying. Ideas can be well articulated & clear.||May not capture inner feelings. People can say what they think the recorder wants to hear.||These interviews were done confidentially between Mum & Ian so they would not influence each other & instead express their own needs.|
|Informal, ongoing conversations||Real fears & desires can surface. Comments are are responses to genuine life flow e.g. activities making you stressed||Some ideas & feedback are lost. May be a reflection of moods & emotional reactions unbalanced with logical thought||I have tried to make mental notes of these & write down things as much as possible.|
Listen to one of the Design Questionnaires I completed here. This is with my Mum, Michele
The first page in my design report is Site Information, which details background information for the reader about Brook End.
I ensured my research had the following elements:
- Location - local towns & villages, bioregion, local wildlife sites, sites of special interest
- History - previous residents, social history, history of land use
- Boundaries - marked on map, overview of neighbours & interactions
- Local Land Uses - working patterns, agriculture, animal use
- Utilities - water, electric, broadband, gas - utility maps are available for large sites
- Access - by vehicle & foot
- Soils - overview from National Soil Resources Institute, observations
- Views - in & out
- Water - overview, flood risk, access
- Landform - slope & geology
- Structures - houses, out buildings, roads, car parks
- Hazards - local industry, nuclear, pollution
I have also completed a climate profile detailing with data and observations profiling:
- Rainfall & moisture
- Sunshine & light
- My own weather observations
- Microclimate analysis
- Plants - trees, shrubs, self-willed plants, cultivated species
- Animals - birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians & fish, butterflies & moths, other insects
- Structures - house, outbuildings, greenhouses, gates
- Events - how the land has been used by people so far
You can also see how I structured my initial research plan here.