June 19th, 2006


a sense of place

One of the ideological pieces that was big in our permaculture course and that I liked very much was an emphasis on a sense of place. Part of what makes a design "permaculture" is the fact that it takes its place into account in the planning and implementation. There are no pre-fab solutions in permaculture, because you have to look at your site and think about what's right for the place where you're working or building. This means that you look at, for example, where the sun rises and sets, and the angles it hits the ground and what that would mean for your house for passive solar benefits, and what are the prevailing winds, and what kinds of plans and animals are native to where you are, and how do they interact with your space and each other.

Okay, so there's that. To make a good permaculture design, you have to observe patterns and interactions in the place where you're designing.

Beyond that, though, our course talked about the importance, in life, of being where you are, of being of a place, which one of the staffers peripheral to our course (but fairly central to the philosophy) described as becoming indigenous. Indigenous became a loaded term in this course, because there was a lot of the "noble savage knows all" paradigm of thinking, which is not impressive to me. But the idea of coming to be of a place, of knowing what's happening where you are, appeals to me greatly.

I grew up in a place where I was, to a limited degree, indigenous, in the sense that I know how a lot of the native plants and animals interact, and I know how the weather works and can read the clouds and wouldn't be likely to stay lost in the woods for very long. My family spent a fair amount of time outdoors, and it was important to my parents that we be literate in the natural world.

When I moved to the east, though, I didn't keep that up. In part, this was because I didn't have much reason to, and in part because the natural systems here are so different that it's, in many ways, starting from scratch. I've been saying for years that I'd like to learn to identify trees and plants, for example, but I haven't made much effort to do so, which is largely laziness. But knowing the name of the type of tree isn't actually the important thing in being present in a place.

I haven't been present in my places for several years, perhaps not since I left Wyoming, because I've largely described my homes as temporary. I'll be here for four years, there for two, this other place for two more, etc... It's very easy not to be present where I am, especially because nothing essential depends on my knowing for myself, for example, when is it safe to plant my frost-sensitive crops outside. I can get that information from other places, or I can go buy my tomatoes at the market.

The important part of being of a place is to know the trees (for example), not by type, but by behavior. This tree grew about 8 inches this year, you can see from the tips of the branches, or that one didn't survive the big ice storm and this other one has some kind of infestation that is going to kill it if something isn't done. Simple observation, questioning, and deeper observation are a big part of being in place.

So I'm starting to do this. I'm trying to learn to look at things differently, to read the information that's there if I know to look for it. I have a lot to learn, though. It's like picking up a book and knowing that the words are composed of letters, and that each letter is associated with a sound, but not having learned the alphabet, or maybe just the vowels. I don't need to know the name of the tree, but maybe that will help me to have a framework to think about what I know about it. I'm trying to think of questions I might ask, things I might have overlooked, and what they might be telling me, but some questions it doesn't occur to me to ask. Because of this, learning is most effective when it's a team effort and I'm looking for ways to make that happen, too.

In the meantime, I'm charting how the sun moves across my place, and making note of how the wind travels here, and on my list of things to get, and soon, is a max/min thermometer, so I can be paying attention to my place and what it's doing. In a year, I'll be able to say, "Last year today, we had a hot and muggy day that ended with a refreshing breeze and thunderstorms." I may not be in this place long enough to make a 20 year record, but I might as well get in practice.