The Cynefin framework, created in 1999, divides the world into complex, complicated, obvious, and chaotic relationships .
My RSS reader recently handed me The Vector Theory of Change, an expansion on the way to interact with complex systems, probe-sense-respond.
I really like the way this model is different, it skews the traditional thinking about how we interact with the world. Instead of some unachievable goal to be controlled into existence, we have a directional unfolding of possibility.
Our mental image of how we interact with the world is not wrong. It’s a case of Yes and. We need to tell stories about all the ways of interacting. Since most of the stories we have are ones of direct control, what would a new story of directionality look like?
The world is not ours to control, we can only interact.
As we have gained awareness as a species, we have used that awareness to manipulate our environments to our advantage. However, that awareness blinded us to the awareness of others and perhaps even ourselves sometimes.
We may be able to manipulate our environments, but we cannot control the actions of others. It is possible to manipulate others, though any attempt to do so results in harm to those we force our will upon.
On the flip side, when we manipulate our environment for our own gain we can also incorporate the awareness of others. As soon as we begin to do that we are using the group mind. The mind of nature, or is it god?
Small changes can have big impacts. Can we live simply enough to not harm others? (eating them as part of a natural cycle is another matter.) What changes can we make now that have the most impact on our surrounding beings?
I believe there is a fundamental change happening in the world, the realization that control brings suffering will continue to propagate between people. As we watch this process unfold we will see suffering caused by those that want to control against those that refuse.
But ultimately will there be anyone left who chooses control?
I was injured doing yoga a few years ago. I was doing a somewhat rigorous series on YouTube, attempting a video on most days. I remember the moment it happened. Lifting my hips upwards and sideways, I thought “hmm… this feels weird.” I was intensely sore for two weeks afterwards, and then that soreness never really went away, it just shifted. I have never felt the same. Pelvic misalignment, perpetual low back pain and hip achiness- it’s even morphed into additional foot pain, 3 years later. I’ve been to two different chiropractors, had a round at physical therapy, tried massage, somatics, as well as my own research and nightly rolling around on the floor trying to “crack the case.” While I would say I’ve improved, my former physical state still eludes me. I’m grateful to still be able to do most things that I want to around the farm, but it has slowed me and been difficult at times dealing with the emotional and physical ups and downs of chronic discomfort.
I don’t know what happened recently to shift my perspective. Perhaps I really needed the 3+ years of pain to hear a fundamentally new message. I was talking to a friend and it dawned on me- I think I know the real source of my injury. While my retelling of the pivotal moment in time always included the strange yoga position, it didn’t include my relationship with myself and my body at the time. I suddenly remembered how I was doing that yoga, and all the yoga and exercise before it. I was doing it for “health”, in theory, but underneath all of that I was doing it with a spirit of coercion enabled through deep disconnection and really harmful cultural narratives. I was doing it with the same old self-hatred that I’ve carried with me since I was a teenager. In full honesty with myself, I see that I was primarily motivated by those voices that say “not this body, but the one you’ll get if you ignore/push/discipline/etc.” I’d lie to myself and say that this time the disconnection from my inner wisdom and from my body was for health and reconnection. But it never was. How could it have been? The honest truth of it is, I can only get into that particular motivational mode from a place of ingratitude and disembodiment. It’s just how it energetically works. Anytime, even if it’s unconscious, that I’m saying “I’ll listen to your messages and needs *after* you do this thing for me, *after* you change, *after* you’ve met the culture’s requirements…”, well, the fact that I hadn’t sustained injury earlier was more about luck than about whatever physical practice I’d taken on.
This realization has convicted me. It’s a pattern I also know well in my history with food. I struggled with deeply disordered eating all through my teenage years. When I came into adulthood, I recognized it wasn’t sustainable and I committed to healing, but years later I found that it had just morphed into a similarly disconnected version of “healthy”. Obsessed with food rules and defining what’s “good” and “bad”, I’d merely repackaged the same old fears and habits of control into something the culture would reward. Of course, all of those beliefs I’d held hinged on the same deeper belief: that I couldn’t truly trust myself, that I wasn’t whole or good enough, that if left to my own devices I’d be lost.
I reached a similar point of realization after embarking on a well-known elimination program that takes place over 30 days. I followed it perfectly and completed it the first time I tried. I ended it 10 pounds lighter, and with more anxiety than ever. I came out of it initially feeling lots of pressure to have gained wisdom about what particular foods are a problem and which ones bring me into my truer and more enlightened and smaller self. I chose my scape-goats and attempted to bask in my success for a few months, but the real yield of the program became clear soon enough. I had further damaged my relationship with food and my body. I’d again committed to a version of life that required so much external force that I was doomed to be perpetually exhausted and unsatisfied. I’d confirmed my fears that my body wasn’t good enough or wise enough to trust.
The experience of grief after this final dietary experiment was so important in my life, I can’t say that it was the wrong thing to have done. I think it was how I finally hit bottom. I started to entertain new stories. I began to discuss my criticisms of these things with friends and family, and a common pattern emerged. Almost everyone in my life shared some version of the same belief/fear: Sure, self-hatred is bad, but if we toss out the rules and cultural pressures, won’t people just turn into (insert scary bad thing here)? I’ve been studying this phenomenon ever since. Underneath it all, when we get really really honest, it becomes clear that we are holding the fear that we cannot be trusted with our lives, our bodies, or our souls. I wrote the following in a small online support group I started to discuss these things:
“The way I see it, this is the engine behind the mass acceptance of diet culture- the insidious belief we cannot be entrusted with our own bodies or lives. It’s the idea that, if left to our own devices, we will fail. This is the seedbed for the psychological and emotional conditions that perpetuate a lifetime of disconnection from one’s own intuitive wisdom.
The more time I spend on this path, the more I come into the realization that there is literally no way to be trustworthy without relationship. That’s antithetical to the concept. So, every time we disconnect from our desires, our feelings, our bodies, and instead defer to an “expert” or some rules or a toxic cultural norm, every time we objectify our food or our bodies, we detach from our relationship and we make the above premise *more true*. This is the revolutionary part. I realized that the less I do that, the more trustworthy I am in the world. The more relationship I have, the more I’m even able to listen, to care, to feel, to intuit, to gain a lasting and loving wisdom. It’s a lost battle if we don’t ever empower ourselves to do it. What a sneaky message to impregnate us with- we’ve lost before we’ve begun!”
In my attempt at healing from this physical injury I realized that the same pattern has been at play. Even in my push to get better and experience more ease, earnestly working to get to the bottom of it, I’ve daily been looking at my body with such criticism, such fear and anger and entitlement. I’ve sought outside help and looked to the internet far more than I’ve sat curiously and quietly with my own body. I’ve said, with every dissatisfied twist and yank and groan and desperate attempt to fix everything and just make it WORK again, “I. Don’t. Trust. You.”
This is the source of my injury. Waves of grief are continuing to hit me as I absorb this truth over time. The promise of grief, though, I’m learning, is that there is a clarity of purpose on the other side. When what needs to die has been let to die, we open to what comes next- what wants to grow. We are perpetually reborn in relationship with what has died. This is an ancient and trustworthy truth.
What is on the other side of these deaths, for me? So far, I’m a bit gentler and more curious. I’m feeling a little more gratitude and I’m able to see better what has been supporting me all along. I’m starting to surrender old stories that don’t serve. I’m feeling a physical pain that pops up sometimes deep in my belly that, when I touch it, it cries out “I’m the part of you so afraid of not being worthy.” This is heavy work, I’m finding. No wonder I clung to the old stories for so long. I’m beginning to hear my pain delivering a fundamentally different message, and it’s scary and full of new responsibility. It says: I am trying to tell you something. I am your faithful friend! I am the measure of the disconnection. I am the informant. I am your navigator. I am the way out if you want it.
What does this mean, in all areas of my life and my experience? I have to be open to the idea that the cause of these hurts were never exactly what happened, it was howit happened. It’s imbedded in the endless war stories and our continued retelling of them. It’s the refusal to let die what needs to die. It’s the refusal to let grow what wants to grow. It’s our collective disembodiment- the divorcing of our souls from our bodies and the greater body of the earth. This is the source of our injury.
We need to understand that to practice permaculture is to pick up it’s mantle and charge forth into the world.
You can choose to practice it, in this moment, now.
What people see and call permaculture is in fact the product of permaculture.
Certainly if you’ve never thought this way, this might be hard and uncomfortable. Perhaps some help?
It is to be antifragile, it gains from disruptions.
It is pattern recognition, which is possible in many forms.
It is to be organized, to make some attempt at optimization.
It is curiosity, about what may be and why.
It’s about observation, seeing without judgement what is really happening.
It’s about acceptance of our place in the grand scheme of things.
It is about scale and universal order, not putting the cart before the horse.
It’s about doing more with what you have.
It’s not about how it looks but it can take many different forms.
It’s about doing the next right thing.
Anybody can practice. With time they’ll get better and better. It’s something we can do all of the time. It fundamentally changes the way we interact with the world. Anyone can make use of it, anytime, in any situation.
When I discovered permaculture* it was a major “ah ha!” moment for me. So that’s what I’d been doing all this time?! I had already intuitively developed a different and less controlling way of doing things as a self-educated young farmer with small children, but still I often felt insecure when I failed to “manage” the landscapes I tended. I worried that outside eyes would see this as a failing, and sometimes I was right. Most people were kind and encouraging and interested, but I did have my critics. The most memorable one was back during our urban farming days when we were experimenting with growing vegetables in straw bales. Most of our neighbors were drawn to it- we had great conversations in those days- but others were annoyed that we couldn’t just keep a nice lawn. One woman in particular yelled to my partner from across the street. He thought he heard “Looks incredible!” But when he looked up from his task and issued an enthusiastic “Thank you!” the woman promptly corrected him, saying “NO! It looks TERRIBLE! I hate it!” He shrugged and said something along the lines of “Well, it’s not for everyone…” Shortly afterwards we received a notice from the city asking us to remove the project, and that was that.
Those were great exercises for me, though, since they got me confronting my insecurities and challenged me to break down those norms even more than I already had. I started questioning what really was beautiful or functional or life-affirming versus what I started to call the “aesthetic of control”. I didn’t want to piss off my neighbors or create an “ugly” landscape, but who dictated what that meant? From what I could tell, so much of what was deemed appropriate or beautiful was disconnected from utility, required the regular implementation of gas guzzling machinery or other high-energy/manufactured inputs, and was often directly (and yet also mindlessly) at war with wildlife. These were fairly fragile systems, too, requiring regular labor to be maintained. Ultimately, I felt that what was really being measured was how well we all performed the practice of subjugation.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not condemning anyone’s flower beds or lawns- and absolutely the practice of growing vegetables/farming requires a similar measure of force in the world. I understand there’s a lot of nuance, but I really wanted to shine a light on the unspoken reasons around why we can’t just let the undomesticated elements and voices speak a little- to allow them to cross the threshold into human territory. What is truly at stake here? When are we celebrating life and working to meet needs and when are we scanning for dissent?
For myself, the most joyful moments I experienced during those early years were always when I felt I had permission to be a participant rather than a dictator. “Permaculture” was the thing that finally gave me that full permission, and my work shifted from that point on. From my perspective, permaculture believed that human creativity could be healing. It believed that we could work *with* the natural world. It didn’t see the world through the lens of an endless battle for survival. It rejected a human-centric way of doing things, but it also believed that we could get our needs met through holistic practices. Concepts like “abundance” were thrown around freely, smashing my unambitious aims of mere sustainability. Permaculture believed in the possibility of reconciliation.
It was everything I wanted to be true. What young environmentalist farmer wants to work from a platform of self-hatred, believing that humans must be relegated to these disconnected and depleted pockets of civilization in order to care for the world? I wanted to see what life really desired and whether or not we humans could still fit into that world. Ideas around conservation were lovely and all, but I wanted to belong.
I remember another story, also involving my partner, where he was excitedly leading me through the woods of his childhood. It was a vast and wild landscape to him as a child, but both of us experienced some pangs of grief realizing how limited this preserved space was- like so many, sandwiched between developments and busy roads. We reflected on how it was an undeniably good thing he even had that wild space to immerse himself in and connect to, as many children don’t even have a lawn to play in. In the middle of the walk he perked up and made a beeline for a tree. An old friend! As he touched the tree a strange voice cried out after him, telling him that he wasn’t to walk there. He quickly reassured her and said “No, it’s okay!! I grew up here and this tree is meaningful to me, I’m just saying hello.” She was stern and authoritative and explained that she was working with a conservation group, and that we were not to veer off the foot path. At this point I started to push back, and asked for her specific reasoning. The gist of it was this: if humans start moving through this fragile landscape, we will hurt it. Common folks don’t know how to interact with this place. Footpaths are for us, the rest of it is for fledgling native plants, animals, and people who “know what they are doing”.
It felt like I was seeing with new eyes. Here was a man who loved a tree, who just wanted to greet this place with the utmost respect. Here was a man issuing some gratitude to a place that taught him to love the natural world. And over there was a person who was using her “love of nature” in a different way. Her activity felt relevant to me, too, as she was busy hacking away at invasive species (a subject I’ll write more in depth about soon), one of the top volunteer opportunities in the environmentalist/conservation field. We cut our losses and decided to go on our way. I remember passing the huge piles of buckthorn she was making, as well as the trash bags filled with garlic mustard. As we continued our walk I was burning with protest. I considered myself an environmentalist, but something about this smelled familiar and I didn’t like it. At this point sweet Jeff was probably already used to my anarchistic tendencies. Anytime someone tried to give me a reason that was some version of “you wouldn’t understand” or “because I told you so”, I called foul and wouldn’t be able to let it go. I also felt like there was a whole extractive and complicated story at play here- one in which the boy who wanted to lay his hand on an old tree was “wrong” and the woman who was murdering plant after plant was “right”.
I thought then and I have thought many times since: If we can’t all simply decipher what love is, what hope do we have? If we can’t issue everyone the right to step forward into that love- of “nature”, of place, of their own humanity… what are we even doing? Do I believe that for people to care for the world we need the direction of those with advanced degrees? Mainstream environmentalism has ironically adopted a fairly abstract and colonialist mindset, and I suppose it’s no surprise that folks raised within this culture acclimate well to that approach, despite the heart of their intentions. And of course I don’t want to oversimplify the complex nature of our problems or to underestimate the important contribution of those with advanced degrees and a heart towards healing, but my criticism of those foundational assumptions still stand. What I ultimately hear is a resounding “You cannot be trusted.” There is obvious wisdom in that, for the moment. I mean, look at where we are. But what I see is that a large part of the why is because the means for being trustworthy continues to be stolen from us. Part of the why is because we continue to let a select few dictate for the masses. Part of the why is because we can’t freely touch a tree, can’t freely see these places as whole and belonging to all of us. Who could find their sense of responsibility there? Trust is earned, labored over, a process of being humbled in front of those you are in relationship with. It’s the practice of allowing those we love to tell us how to love them (or how we are not loving them), and then doing it. We are far too comfortable with our own subjugation, far too accepting of the abstraction of our needs. We’ve even been convinced that we are somehow “liberated” when we are not connected to the land. It makes sense to me that in order to live with these things, these deep contradictions, they also have to bleed out into our beliefs about how non-humans and whole places should be treated and thought about as well.
There are ways in which I also fail to adhere to some folks’ standards of what it means to practice permaculture, but despite my misfit status I personally uplift the idea as a shared approach amongst a colonized and traumatized people for working to unravel some of those toxic habits and beliefs. It’s a new checkpoint, a practice that is starting folks on an empowered path towards restoring the human relationship with earth- addressing the abstraction, nurturing our gift of creativity, and explicitly working at taking responsibility for our own needs (in other words, it is essentially taking on the problem of exploitation). It’s part of a belief system that says that if we want reconciliation we also have to work it. That’s the story I’ve chosen to align myself with. Can we live into the possibility of a “permanent culture”, or a culture that serves?
I believe we are touching on concepts that all of our indigenous ancestors were fluent in, ones we were meant to inherit but many of us did not. I believe they want us to listen and to speak that language with ease again. It’s scary to engage with this stuff, because it means we have to really look at where we are, take responsibility, and to become fluent in our grief. But this scary territory also brings me to new places of peace. One of my favorite teachers, Stephen Jenkinson, says “Grief is a way of loving that which has slipped from view… and if that’s true, then it must stand, love is a way of grieving that which has not yet done so… Grief is a way of loving, but love is a way of grieving, too.” With that, I’m brought back around to that memory of the little patch of woods with Jeff. We showed up to simply love them, and were hit with waves of grief as a result. These things exist together, by design. It’s a daunting and promising proposition, isn’t it?
Mostly, I’m so grateful to everyone who’s bravely starting to form words around this stuff, to propagate the magic of thinking and doing in a new (to us) way, and to also find ways of sharing it, however imperfectly. To me, it’s important to acknowledge that we are communal creatures, and anytime I hear an idea that resonates within my spirit I am struck by the galvanizing power of group witnessing- the power of belonging. Regardless of if we call it “permaculture” or anything else, we need to speak to these concepts together. We need the common words and actions to bring them into reality, to bring us into a shared home worth nurturing and defending.
”The conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive systems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of the landscape with people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.” / “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system.” (Bill Mollison)
I’ve had a fascination with permaculture since I learned about it. There is so much to like. Make the world a better place. Work with nature and feed yourself too.
But there seems to be a whole bunch of baggage built up around it, some real dysfunction. And at all levels! So many mistake the map for the territory and the pieces for the whole. So many retreat into their own little bubble and disconnect from the realities around us.
How can we permaculture, without falling into the trap? What is it to really permaculture? We need to think permaculture, to speak its language, to shift our consciousness in some specific ways. I’ve decided for my own practice it’s three things: improve my awareness, ensure me and my family’s life on this planet, and be open to better process. Clearly seeing, improving our action, and having a goal.
Awareness – What is going on with us and around us? I’m going to know more about me and the world around me, therefore making better decisions.
Goals – What are we even trying to do? What needs to be done?
Process – What course of action gives the best results in line with our goals based on our contextual awareness?
Seeing whom we’re with, where we’re going, and how to get there in the given context.
I’ve found myself smelling and tasting soil and various plants around me (some known poisonous). I like to ramble through the woods. Find a sit spot, stop and listen. Do Tai Chi in the woods. All different ways to experience than a map. Perhaps the landscape is the map itself!
What is a map? How does the form it takes influence our thinking? How have maps shaped the world? What is the effect of the birds-eye view? It’s completely different from the way we experience the world.
What other forms could a map take? Are the zines that we made maps?