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Observe and Interact

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Category            Permaculture Principles

[Installment I. in a twelve week series highlighting David Holmgren’s principles of permaculture—a’la my personal Cuban IPCC experience]

“Good design depends on a free and harmonious relationship between nature and people, in which careful observation and thoughtful interaction provide the design inspiration, repertoire and patterns. It is not something that is generated in isolation, but through continuous and reciprocal interaction with the subject. (“Essence of Permaculture: A summary of permaculture concepts and principles taken from ‘Permaculture Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability’ by David Holmgren)

The monsoon came to Havana, the same day hundreds of permaculturists from all over the world were to transfer from the relative comfort of hotel and Casa Particular to the as-yet unknown territory of the convergence, an hour or so down the coast. We were to meet at the lobby of the Hotel Vedado early in the morning, and I gazed forlornly from a portico less than a block away out into the river, known mere hours before as “Calle 25”, which I would shortly have to ford in order to board the bus to the campismo Los Cocos. Up to now, this great adventure had unraveled with relatively few mishaps—yes, of course, there were the endless lines to buy tickets, to get in, to eat, to gain access to anyone with a clue what might be going on…but this…this development could very well be the proverbial straw.

Let me explain: See, I like the water, I do—and I sail, therefore have a basic understanding and comfort with the properties of water. What I do not like is the unplanned drenching—the kind where you might be wearing street clothes and you don’t know when, where, or how long the state of dampness might last, or when ‘dry’ would take place. My first offshore sailing experience was like this—three solid days of rain coming from every direction, no end in sight. It was uncomfortable, and highlighted item #1 which was forgotten in my haste to board the airport tram: my umbrella.

I was ok with the absence of toilet seats and often toilet paper in Havana—an adjustment, to which one simply adapts—or plan ahead and BYOTP. I grew accustomed as well to the constant queue, found ways of shifting weight, standing in modified tree pose, and overcoming the basic shyness which normally inhibits conversation with my neighbors in line. Some of the best, most interesting, and enriching relationships began in those queues! The food as well—I quickly learned where and when I would have access to something my body would not reject immediately, and whether or not Mojitos were included. (Some things are just more important than others, you know!) This is all known, in both yoga and permaculture terms, as ‘edge play’. All systems, environments, elements of the system—all things grow better, stronger, more interesting—richer, in the overlap—the margins between two zones. In short: the day to day reality of the conference would force me from my comfort zone of “observing” into the often excruciating realm of “interaction”.

The food queues at lunchtime during the conference were some of the best examples of ‘observe and interact’ I can think of in my entire Cuba experience. The first day, hundreds of people waited for what seemed an interminably long time, outside of closed doors to an as-yet unknown dining room. Some of us had already experienced some frustration with the queuing habits of the Cubans earlier that morning, while registering for the conference, and there was as yet little indication of whether or not any special provisions had been made for vegetarians, let alone those of us who, sadly, can no longer tolerate gluten. I assured myself that there would be rice, and beans in plenty, and that if the beans were indeed cooked with pork, that my system would somehow not reject it. There would be food I could eat.

Indeed, I was right—however, since there were no instructions when the gates were opened, some of us went to secure tables, while others went straight for the food buffet line. Even though I began near the front of the line outside the doors, the line at the food trough was even longer once I attempted to locate a plate. Then began the process of finding non-meat, non-wheat comestibles. Working backwards through the line seemed a great way to greet old friends and make new ones, especially since by now everyone had been waiting over an hour, and we were already late for the next scheduled presentation. Yes, that would be sarcasm…even so, aside from a few unkind comments regarding paddling upstream, I was able to secure a plate full of what appeared to be edible, digestible food. Happily, many of my co-diners at my chosen table were also in the same dietary boat as I, so we were able to guide one another to the best food choices as well. The presence of beer as a beverage choice likely assisted in the relative ease of adjustment to what became a three-hour lunch break.

The organizers were no doubt quite busy later that evening, re-designing both the disastrous and disruptive coffee break as well as the ongoing lunch procedure.

The one overriding fact which quickly became apparent throughout this entire experience was that, while discomfort creates an expanding order of difficulty to look beyond ones’ own state of being, it also opens the door to observation of the system from a multitude of perspectives. Case in point: braving the elements, to drag the suitcase up the street to join the rest of the dripping mass of humanity–huddled under the tiny canopy, packed together most intimately—the crowd bulging up the stairs and into the lobby. The half a block over cracked sidewalks and cobblestone was enough to soak me and my luggage through, in addition to dropping it twice into large puddles. Yep, that was my laptop, there, in that bag—the one that nearly floated downstream. Even so, having secured a spot where my body was mostly out of the deluge, more taxis arrived by the minute, regurgitating more people and more baggage into the swelling throng at the mouth of the dry inner sanctum. And yet—no angry words, no lost tempers, very little eyebrow-knitting or finger-pointing. And people were smiling. Permies on the whole being a ‘huggy’ bunch, I wonder if the overall air of acceptance and patience had something to do with oxytocin levels, and if being squished together like crowder peas has the same effect on our “love quotient” as a hug.

This is a very valid question, and one which Paul Zak answered most eloquently as well as scientifically in his TEDtalk, “Trust, Morality, and…Oxytocin?” in the resounding imperative. Which is something I do hope that those in the permaculture community who lobby incessantly for ‘standards’ based only on scientifically-proven curriculum might keep in mind. These same proponents for standards and regulation and so-called science are also the same people who criticize the group hugs, social interplay and ‘metaphysical’ subject matter in PDC coursework. This is what I find the most surprising, overall, as I continue to meet more permaculture people worldwide—even though the lack of coverage in PDCs of both Social Permaculture and Ethics was long ago recognized, by the founders of the movement themselves, those who choose to highlight these aspects are maligned and discredited by some of the more ‘mainstream’ tradition. Seriously—in the so-called ‘bible’ of permaculture, it is stated: “Scientists who “know” and observe, don’t usually apply their knowledge in the world. Those who “act” often don’t know or observe. [Leading to] several tragic conditions…” This is design science, a recognized methodology for designing ecological systems, including People Care, perhaps most importantly, because after all—it is we the people who are doing the observing and interacting.

The proverb ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ reminds us that the process of observing influences reality, and that we must always be circumspect about absolute truths and values.” (Holmgren)

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13 thoughts on “Observe and Interact

  1. Fantastic piece! I love the imagery of taxis regurgitating luggage and people like crowder peas! I can’t wait to read more!

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