This episode is Joel Glanzberg’s opening remarks recorded live at the Mid-Atlantic Permaculture Convergence. He shares with us his observations from 30 years practicing permaculutre, rooted in the earliest days when Bill Mollison still taught in United States. Along the way Joel shares with us his personal successes and failures, while keeping a focus on how we can use the teachings of permaculture to view the world through a lens that focuses on the patterns that lead to ever greater, intentional, design with biological systems in mind.
In the notes below you’ll find a transcript of Joel’s talk. This is something I’d like to include in every episode of the show and to help that along have updated the Patreon page for the show to reflect that. We’re over halfway to the goal of transcripts for every future episode so sign up today and help us reach that milestone!
What I like about this conversation with Joel is how he continued to return to the power of biological forces in our systems. From Schrodinger’s quote about neg-entropy to how he might build his son, to repairing cracks in a system, life begets life. The more we spend time designing with life in mind the more regenerative our systems become. The more they allow us to design ourselves out of the work.
Even with what I’m doing here with the podcast, right now technology is how the stories are told, but over time and with the creation of new traditions, we can train new storytellers who collect and share the tales of others, to spread words and voices from mouth to ear in a perpetual way that isn’t replaced with something, but by someone.
Oh what a beautiful world it will be.
How do patterns impact your work? Did you learn something new from what Joel shared?
I’d love to hear from you.
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From here, the next episode is a permabyte about my experiences with Venom Immunotherapy, and after that is a follow up conversation with Joshua Cubista recorded by David Bilbrey.
Until then, spend each day looking for the patterns that lead to the world you want to live in while taking care of Earth, yourself, and each other.
It’s really wonderful for me to see all of you. As Scott was intimating I’ve been doing this for about thirty years, and thirty years ago there were no college programs, there were like three books, there were like sixty of us throughout the country. So to see all of your faces and all the work you guys are doing, it just makes me very grateful and so I want to thank you not only for being here, but for caring and all the work that you do.
There’s been a lot of discussion in the permaculture community about trying to certify people, create all of these various structures and ways of insuring that we don’t lose all the things that were brought to permaculture from the beginning and throughout the years. Cause as you all know if you’ve ever played whisper down the lane, where if I were to whisper something in your ear and then you were to whisper it in her ear and it went all the way around by the time it came out to Scott it would be something completely different.
So this model we have of teaching and then teachers teaching and teachers teaching, there are a lot of things that get added and there’s also sometimes things that gets lost and missed. I had the opportunity to go and teach in Africa before the International Convergence there a number of years ago and all the social, economic, legal stuff, what we call the Invisible Structures had largely been dropped, right, partly because feeding people is so important and also simply because people run out of time. So one of the things I’ve really been interested in all along is the pattern aspect of things, and why patterns are important.
If you help me out here for a minute, just close your eyes for a second, and watch your breath for a moment. Take two, three deep breaths. Watch yourself inhale and exhale. And maybe you can even feel your heart beating at the same time.
So that is actually you living. As your diaphragm goes down and the atmosphere rushes into your lungs spreads out through the branching bronchi of your lungs so there’s that large surface to volume and then that air goes into those little blood cells and those tiny little one cell-wide capillaries and goes branching through your whole circulatory system to every cell in your body, to every other little capillary so that it can drop off its oxygen and pick up carbon dioxide and go back to your lungs and go back out into the atmosphere. That is life.
So because permaculture, we talk about as permaculture design and we think mostly about designing structures. Right? But, these structures aren’t living, right? So, life is exchange. The moment you stop exchanging the atmosphere, you stop exchanging with the water and the food that jumps up out of the earth and into your mouth, you will stop living. Everything that is alive, these trees are here to exchange between the atmosphere and the earth. Taking sunlight turning into sugar, taking that down into the ground, building their bodies out of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, taking the water and mineral and nutrients out of the soil and putting it up into the air to seed the clouds to create the rain. Everything that’s alive is creating exchange.
You all know the general model, right, that pattern of exchange that we talk about in permaculture? That’s important because life is exchange and that’s the pattern of every exchange.
So, I have three beautiful little children, and when my son, who is now 5, was a little boy, I was holding him while he slept. And he taught me a lot about life and design. And while I was holding him, I thought about how I would build his beautiful body. I’ve built stuff my whole life.
Of course what I would do is build his structure first. I’d put all of his bones together with muscles and tendons and ligaments and then I would run his circulatory system and his nervous system and I’d install all his organs, hook em up, sheath him in skin, fill him with blood, water and food and start him up.
And this is how we design and build everything that we make. We design it, we put it together, and it operated, whether it’s a building, an organization, a curriculum, or a car. But nothing living is created in that way. His body was built by his body metabolising. The river was made by the water flowing. The tree was made by taking in sunlight and carbon dioxide and moving nutrients and water.
So how do we as permaculture designers who are more interested in biology than in physics, that’s the shift that permaculture makes. It’s saying, sure, all the laws of physics hold true, and harnessing them we can be incredibly powerful. We can change landscapes, but this is a living reality that we are blessed with. If we understand how biology works, and as living beings imitate how biology works we’ll come out with very different worlds. Very different effects. So how do we design processes instead of structures. Because life is processes of exchange.
An example that I love from Haiti. After the earthquake they built a teaching hospital. And one of the things that was striking to me is that it was a pretty cool design, it was passive solar and they catch the water and all those good things. But they designed the process differently. So they hired Haitian workers to build it and they got to all these technical things they didn’t have the skills to do: the electrical and the gas and the computer stuff and finishes and all the rest. They brought in union workers from the States, but every union worker had two apprentices so by the time the hospital was built they had people trained to build the next hospital as well as to maintain that one. We all know that one of the problems with so much of the aid that’s given to the third world, right, is that it pretty soon it breaks down and people don’t have the knowledge or spare parts to fix it and how to use it. So, the structural design of the building was the same. You wouldn’t see anything different on the blueprints, but by redesigning the process for creating it you created all kinds of various things in the community.
So this was really brought home to me a few years ago. I should probably have said this, not only have I been doing this for thirty years, my demonstration site Flowering Tree is one of the main examples in Gaia’s Garden, Toby’s first book, and I did a video of it a couple years that you can see at Pattern Mind. It’s called Thirty Years Greening the Desert.
When I was making that video I zoomed in on Google Earth. You can see the dry Southwest, dry Southwest, and here’s this beautiful three-quarters of an acre food forest that’s thirty years old. Full covered canopy, five stories, and I was really impressed with myself. And then in the middle of the night I woke up and I realized that it was a green island was a measure of my failure, because I was not aiming to create a demonstration site I was aiming to change how people lived in the place and if I had been successful it would have disappeared in a sea of food forest like the first tree in a forest. Or the first blade of grass in a meadow. But I hadn’t designed the process to enable it, or to insure that it changed the larger system. And it made me realize I would rather just stay home with my family and play with my plants and make things, but we all know that we’re in pretty dire circumstances on the planet as a culture, as a race, as a species and that what we learn in the garden, what we learn in the forest is how living systems function and the true power of permaculture is that everything on the planet is a living system whether it is an organism or an organization, an ecosystem or an economic system, all living systems follow the same pattern. And so our learnings in our gardens, our nice little sandboxes where we get to play with living systems and learn from them we can take those learnings and use them to shift all these other living systems that are in such dire need of shifting.
Whether it is education or business or governance or large water systems. Whatever it is. And part of what I realized is why I tell that story about my son, is I am so focused on the stuff of the world, when the world is relationships and exchanges. At least the living world is the exchanges between us. It’s the processes. And every structure is entropic.
As soon as the structure was built it begins to fall apart. As soon as you drive your car off the lot it is worth less money because it falls apart. You gotta fix it, you gotta fix it, you gotta fix it. But my son’s body, just like all of our bodies and all of these other living things bodies, get better and better, and better. They develop.
There’s a wonderful little book called What is Life by the physicist Shroedinger. You might of heard of his cat. And he said that life is neg-entropy. It is a counter entropic force. Systems become more developed and more complex. The trees grow up. The deer graze in the lowlands and they go up to the highlands to fertilize so it can all wash down again. The salmon spawn up in the uplands, go out to the sea, used to get as big as hogs, swim back up so they could take all those nutrients from the ocean and put them back at the highest point in the watershed to be spread out to fertilize the forest by people, and eagles and bears and wolves and all the rest.
One of the problems with how we’ve been working as human beings is because we are so focused on structures including legal structures, economic structures, governance structures that are brittle and will fall apart. That is what is killing the world. That’s because we are focused on dead things instead of focusing on patterns of processes to regenerate things.
You guys all know the old Bill Mollison Permaculture Principles of the problem is the solution and the least change for the greatest effect. You guys all know those principles?
And so, the way I came into permacutlure initially was I read The One-Straw Revolution by Fukuoka and his main things are, you know he had a near death experience, he had this sort of enlightenment experience after he had kind of collapsed in his life, and it changed how he thought and saw the world. And he said the most important thing was he asked different questions. Do you know what those questions were.
Audience Member: “What don’t I have to do?”
He said instead of asking, “What can I do?” I began to ask, “What can I stop doing? What can I not do,” so he stopped weeding, he stopped fertilizing, and he stopped mostly watering, and he stopped doing all the things pretty much that we think that you need to do in agriculture. He called it Not Doing Farming.
In chinese the phrase is Wu Wei, Not Doing. And that’s the basis of permaculture. It’s why we talk about Work is Pollution. Any needs that are not provided for any element of the system by the system is work we need to do and the unused resources is pollution. So we’re trying to get away from working.
So what is Fukuoka most known for?
Seed balls and mulch.
So even the man who developed Not Doing Farming is known for the little bits of doing he did. And it’s one of the things that I think is the most important bit of permaculture. We’re so focused on all the permaculture ways of doing. Mulching and sheet mulching and making swales and hugelkultur and aquaculture and, you know all this doing, when the whole point is to find that least change for the greatest effect. What is the appropriate acupuncture point where we can do a little thing that shifts the whole system.
Do you all know who Terry Dobson was?
Terry Dobson was a martial artist. He was the first American student of Ueshiba who started Aikido in Japan and he tells this story.
Ueshiba was about this big, little guy, and Terry Dobson was this like 6′ 4″ 250lb American guy and he had been studying with Ueshiba for like three years, 22 years old, and Ueshiba kept saying you will not fight. You see tough guys on the street, go to the other side of the street. Someone tries to start a fight with you, don’t fight with him.
Terry Dobson was wanting to show his stuff and he was on the train going home one day and a drunk guy got on the train covered in vomit and shoved a pregnant lady down in the seat and is pushing people around and Terry is like, “This is it. Ueshiba can’t say nothing. This is righteous.” And he gets up and the guy sees him and yells at him and comes running, “YAAAAA!” and they hear this little voice say, “Hey” and there’s this nicely dressed elderly Japanese man.
He says, “Hey, do you like to drink?”
The drunk man, “What’s it to you?”
“Well, you know, my wife and I have this lovely plum tree out back and we like to sit underneath it and drink sake and i thought you might have a lovely home and a lovely wife.”
“Oooohhhhh. My wife died and I lost my job. I lost my house. I’m poor and everything is terrible.”
Pretty soon it’s Terry Dobson’s stop and he gets off and the drunk guy is sitting with his head in the lap of the elderly man whose petting his head and speaking to him.
Terry Dobson realized he’d learned the forms of Aikido and he had missed the patterns behind them. And so this elderly man had not been fooled by the surface presentation, the symptom of the drunk man being violent. He had seen behind to the pattern and had seen it to its source. And by a few words he got that to come out.
What would have happened if Terry beat him up? Would it have made anything better? Probably would have made it worse.
By seeing to that source and breaking that surface structure that man began the regeneration, hopefully, of that drunk human being whose one of our, part of our, community. And so that to me is what permaculture is all about. It’s what tracking about. How do we see the patterns behind things to see the little changes that changes the pattern that creates a different presentation. Instead of trying to solve symptoms without solving the patterns behind them that are presenting as those symptoms, we’re going to spend our lives putting out fires.
And so to me that’s the great value, the great blessing of having worked with plants and living communities so much is that we learn how living systems really work instead of our ideas of them. And so the main thing that I would like to ask of all of you is please always be asking yourself, “Am I working on a symptom? Am I trying to put out fires or put a bandaid on a problem?” When the problem is the solution.
In structures, cracks are a problem. It’s why we fix our oil pan, it’s why we fix the leaks in our roof. We fix all these cracks. In living systems cracks are the opening to the next level.
When a chick is in the egg and it runs out of food and room it doesn’t go shopping and add an addition. It breaks the shell.
And it enters a new world. And for a while its parents feed it until she and her siblings outgrow the nest and their parents ability to feed them, then they fledge and enter a new level of reality.
So, reality is layered. Even here. Talk about it in the food forest. There are the plants under the ground the rooted ones, there’s the ones on the surface, there’s the trees and the understory and the shrubs and the vines. Here in the landscape there is the river and the semi-aquatic and the lowlands and the slopes and the uplands. Reality is layered and you all know this Einstein quote, Problems cannot be solved with the same level of thinking that created them. That’s how nature solves her problems is by using them as opportunities and openings to evolve.
We were talking last night about the wonderful work of Kat Anderson and all the people who have been looking at the chestnut / oak forest of this region. So you probably know when Europeans came here twenty percent of the forest were chestnuts. Another majority was oak and pecan and hickory and black walnuts and all these nut trees and fruit trees and shrubs.
Let me backup a second, do you all know what ecological succession is? So it’s a primary pattern in all living systems. You have bare soil. First thing that comes in is annual weeds or before that maybe lichens and mosses. Then after the weeds you start to get the grasses and then you start to get shrubs and pioneer trees and sub-climax and eventually you get to a climax hardwood forest system. You can even see succession occurring here. We’re starting to get the grasses here and the shrubs underneath and eventually up to the trees.
For a very long time we had this very hierarchical idea that climax was where everything was headed. It’s the king. But what we found is that actually sub-climax is much more diverse and productive and it turns out that climax here is something like beech / maple, which are very thin barked. They don’t produce so much and they don’t feed so many other animals as all the nut trees. One of the things the native people saw was, oh, if I burn a beech / maple forest that is very thin barked I’m going to kill them off. I’m going to buffer the PH of the soil and I’m going to encourage all the nut trees that are going to feed the deer and the bears and the turkeys. Oh, and it’s also going to buffer the PH of the water which are going to enable all the oysters to make the shells better.
In the Chesapeake there were enough oysters to filter the bay in a day or two.
One of the things the native peoples discovered was by doing cool burns, not canopy burns that take everything out, but cool burns, they are going to take out the sticks and the underbrush so you can stalk and hunt better. You can see people coming if you have to worry about that. You’re going to create the trees that are going to feed you and feed the animals you’re going to eat from. You are going to buffer the soils. You are going to buffer the PH of the waters. You are going to encourage the shellfish that you go and harvest and eat every summer. Oh, and guess what? Take out the ticks. And the fleas. And also all the weevils that are going to eat your nuts. The least change for the greatest effect.
One of the problems with human beings is that most everything we do creates ecological disturbance. Put that driveway in we tore up a bunch of plants. To plow a field and grow our food we do a lot of disturbance. The problem is that we’re not designing the disturbance. Throughout the world human beings being very intelligent figured out how they could use small disturbances to shift ecological succession to the most productive levels.
That’s what happened to Terry Dobson on that train. His structured idea of reality got disturbed by this experience. That’s what happened to Fukuoka when he almost died. So our minds are ecological systems. They are living systems. Our communities are ecological systems. Our economic systems are ecological living systems and they follow the same stages of succession.
You have a poor neighborhood and there’s maybe a lot of crime and there’s people from all over the world there and that’s where people maybe are using drugs or whatever. That’s where the artists move in because they can afford it. It’s really cool and interesting and a little on the edge and creative things happen and then it becomes a little bit more established and it becomes where you have the yuppie wine bars and coffee shops and galleries. And then pretty soon it becomes gentrified and the art is really boring and everybody has to move out and you move to a climax ecosystem.
And something has to come in, in to disturb it so it can become more creative and interesting again. It doesn’t matter what the system is, it follows this pattern of succession. Every living thing, because life is so unstable, tries to move towards stability. But if we go for the stability of concrete there cannot be the exchanges that are necessary for living.
To my mind what I would like to invite you all into is to learn to see behind what you see. See the patterns behind it. And you’re not aware of this, but every time you read something, what are you seeing? You are seeing the movements of someone’s mind. There are tracks on the page, but you are seeing behind that to patterns of processes. Patterns of thoughts. Patterns of ideas.
You might even be seeing people doing things. It’s just like a tracker. It’s not to say deer, deer, deer. It’s to see that animal moving to the clearing and pausing and turning its head and looking and going on. So lets see everything as a track so we can see the patterns of processes so we can find that acupuncture point. That little pebble we can drop into the pond to create those waves of change that we know we need because we don’t have a lot of time. We don’t have a lot of energy. There’s not that many of us. We have to make sure that what we do is effective.
This talk is meant to be a pebble dropped into a pond. This event is meant to be a small event that can have all these rippling effects.
When we have a conversation, we’re selling people plants, how do we use that as an opportunity to shift how people are thinking about things. When we write things. When we’re implementing something how do we make that an educational experience for the community. How do we make that create jobs and businesses in the community?
I was talking to Dale and he mentioned this Gregory Bateson story about the New College in Oxford. And the New College was started about the 1600s and there’s a great big dining hall. 50-60 feet long and there were great big oak beams in it. And the maintenance man was up there because he saw some sawdust and he dug around in the beam with a knife and found it was riddle with beetles. He went to the next one and the next one and the next one and he was like, “Where are we going to find oak trees to replace these two foot square beams 60 foot long. They looked and looked and eventually the board called in the forester because they had forest land.
The forester said, “Oh, I was wondering when you were going to ask about them oaks.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Oh, everybody knows oak beams get beetly in 500 years so when they built this college they planted the oaks and every forester told the next forester, don’t you cut those oaks. Those are for the dining hall.”
Gregory Bateson says that’s the way you design a society.
So what if before we designed the building we design the forest to provide the wood. And we design how we’re going to produce the concrete. And we design how we’re going to get the metal or recycle the metal so we’re looking at the whole process instead of just this little blip in it.
And every time we’re doing something is an opportunity to begin to work on that.
If you would please, hold up your fist.
So, I’ve had the opportunity for fifteen years now to help co-teach a native american permaculture course in New Mexico where we’ve had people from all over the continent come. And we were in the Jicarilla pueblo and this old man had us all do this. And he said, “Hold up your fist. Look at the ridge of your knuckles. It goes up and down, up and down. Just like the mountain. Just like the river goes back and forth. Look at the edge of your fist. It spirals. Just like the water behind a rock where the trout stays. No square people here. We’re all round.”
And his point was, if we keep telling ourselves the story that human beings are the problem, the bad part that needs to be repaired, replaced, or eliminated, which is how you fix structures, we can’t help but destroy things. If you tell a little kid, “You’re bad” they are going to be bad. If we tell one another we belong here, the creator placed us here for a reason to play a particular role and we have gotten confused about what our role is to use this incredible consciousness and awareness we were given. So if we could use this consciousness to track patterns. To find the least change for the greatest effect. To be designers of disturbance so we’re actually focusing on designing the disturbance instead of designing the structure then we can be a blessing for the world We can actually be essential portions of all these living systems that we love so dearly. To hear the crickets and see the green leaves and the light through the leaves. All this beauty. Eat the food that comes from these plants. To feel alive is such a blessing. We only want to give back.
For me, that’s what permaculture is all about. It’s not all the techniques, but how can I learn from those techniques to repattern and to find those least changes for the greatest effect.