PDC Learnings – Elements

Well, I’ve finally finished the PDC. I think I  have the big picture.

Based on what I finally learned, I’m going to revise my most recent post.  I still have 4 main areas of study but I intend to break them up differently:

  1. The process of design using a permaculture approach.  This consists of the steps of:
    1. setting the goals for the design (which has already been discussed in this blog),permaculture design process
    2. completing the site assessment (which I discussed last week),
    3. the actual process of completing the design and
    4. implementing the design
    5. and finally, evaluating the design
  2. The elements of a design. These are both the elements that are present on the site and elements (the animals, plants, insects, buildings, equipment etc.) that you as designer add as part of the design.
  3. The patterns, both those inherent in an ecosystem and the physical patterns inherent in nature. In nature, elements interact in specific patterns.
  4. The techniques that you as designer use to mimic or duplicate the natural patterns.

In this post I wanted to cover elements. Elements have needs (inputs) and yields (outputs). One of the key patterns inherent in the ecosystem is that the outputs of one element supply the inputs of another.  Elements are connected in reciprocity.  Elements are living things or equipment that convert the nutrients or water from one form to another either 1) using them to either create a yield or 2) breaking them down to more basic components.

I don’t need to reinvent the wheel and repeat things that others have said about elements. Here some of the more typical things that permaculture says about elements:

  • First, the classic permaculture diagram showing inputs, outputs and intrinsic characteristics of …a chicken from Permaculture Free Library.

A couple extra points that I found important as I did my design.

  • I found it helpful to actually write out the inputs and outputs of the existing elements on my site and see what I was missing. For a typical suburban home,  resources come in and out of the site from far away . Water, for example is conveyed from offsite and used to water plants onsite. Water is an input to plants, while stormwater is taken offsite. There is very little reciprocity on the site.  My design captured and reused more of the resources onsite, locally.
  • Look at elements in the big picture categories of plants, animals/insects, structures and events.  Be aware that your site will need animals (sources of beneficial insects, manure and insect predators) and decomposing organisms (compost, mushrooms) to connect inputs and outputs into a complete cycle.
  • Finally elements play into these basic permaculture principles:
    • Obtain a yield – Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing
    • Produce no waste – By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.
    • Integrate rather than segregate – By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.

Waste Not Want Not

Scrap Cardboard from Watts Up

As a child, I was discouraged from creating waste.  I was told not to waste food; I should not to take any more food than I would eat.  I shouldn’t  cook more than I would eat. I was told to turn out lights when I left a room. I was encouraged not to waste paper, not to buy a lot of clothes, not to use a lot of resources. I brought that thinking to my permaculture practice.

But I’ve reflected on these teachings after seeing the film Temple Grandin on video last weekend.  The film which I’d encourage you to watch, explores the life of Temple Grandin, a young woman with autism who, with the support of her family and community, learns to work through the difficulties of autism to ultimately complete her PhD. Her autism, while presenting a number of challenges, also gives her access to an extremely powerful  visual memory and empathy which prove to be assets her in pursuing her life’s work, designing facilities for cattle.

What struck me in the film was how she would experiment and the waste she created in the process of experimentation. There’s a scene in the film where she is trying to build an exhibit to demonstrate perspective. As she tries again and again, she creates a pile of waste boards and paper.  As I watched it I thought, “I would never have created so much waste”. But them, maybe I’ve been missing the point.

I think our culture is obsessed with efficiency, eliminating waste.   We typically judge companies based on their productivity.  At every moment  we believe we should be doing something “productive”, making money even when you sleep.

Though permaculture say produce no waste, I don’t think we are  aiming to maximize production efficiency in the same sense that our culture typically does. In an ecological sense, waste to one is food to someone else.  Permaculture is about consciously completing the cycle, bringing in new elements to use up every bit of waste. Many organisms try to survive in each particular environment; some succeed and some fail. Those that succeed, over time, thrive.  Over time, the ecosystem as whole become more efficient.

Yes it is important to not use resources at an unsustainable rate but many trials are necessary for success. An equally important strategy in producing no waste is to bring in the new elements that will beneficially use the waste that I create.