Learning to observe and interact with nature are the first principles of permaculture. Coincidentally, they’re the first principle of good homesteading, too! This is post number 0ne in a series of articles that explain permaculture principles for homesteaders and how they’re relevant to our homesteading efforts. Learning observation skills requires a few simple steps that include a concept called biomimicry, which is mimicking the systems that exist in the natural world. In short, we learn to watch nature and do what it does to improve our homesteads with less work and more harvests!
Permaculture Principles Explained in Homesteader Speak
As I mentioned, this is the first in a series of articles that will each detail the permaculture principles in homesteader-speak so that we can see how these ideas will increase the abundance on our homesteads.
This first principle, observe and interact, is connected to the other eleven permaculture principles and it’s the perfect place to begin. Learning to see – to really see and absorb – what is happening around us in the natural world will help us make informed decisions about design on our land.
These observations will also allow us then to mimic the systems that are already happening in our space and to recreate other helpful natural cycles that will contribute to the success of our homestead.
Before we begin in earnest, here’s what you can expect from each of these permaculture principle articles:
- A basic statement of the permaculture principle being outlined.
- Examples of how the principle presents in nature and on the homestead.
- A pertinent quote that can further help internalize the message of the principle.
- Resources for further study.
- A challenge to apply the principle on your homestead this week.
Hint: You may want to grab a notebook or your homestead journal and a pen for taking notes and writing down the challenge, should you choose to participate in it.
Permaculture Principle #1 – Observe & Interact for Biomimicry
So, the first thing we learn to do in order to create good design is to observe ecology, or nature and the patterns in nature. Learning to observe the world around us – nature and people – is really about learning to pay attention!
When we take the time to observe what is already happening on our site or on our homestead, we will be able to work with nature instead of trying to force unnatural patterns upon her. Whenever we force nature to perform in an unnatural way, it always ends up creating more work for us.
As we observe the homestead, we can ask ourselves questions like:
- Is the homestead element I’m working with situated in the correct spot?
- Is it performing easily in this space? Is it struggling?
- If I moved this element, would it perform better or result in less work for me?
- Which spot on my homestead would allow this element to behave more naturally?
- Can I recreate a natural system to allow this element to perform better? (This is biomimicry – more on that later!)
Working With Nature, Rather Than Against Her Example
Here’s an example using one of my favorite fragrant landscaping bushes, the gardenia. Gardenia bushes are members of the coffee family (Rubiaceae) and are native to areas like Africa, Asia, and Australia. They have lovely green foliage and deliciously scented white flowers.
If I want to grow gardenias in my garden but I live in Ontario, Canada (growing zone 4) where gardenias can’t survive the winter on their own:
- I will need to work hard to dig up my gardenia every fall and bring it indoors to protect it.
- Or place it in a heated greenhouse.
- I will also need to amend the soil to provide the pH and nutrients that gardenias need to survive in a climate to which they are not naturally well-suited.
- That all goes along with typically maintenance like mulching and pruning.
Or I could…
Less Work, More Natural Option
I could simply plant a mock orange bush (in the Philadelphus family) which is native to all the Americas, including Canada. As a native plant, mock orange is genetically accustomed to surviving and thriving in my climate.
You could say that whatever your native plants are, they biologically hardwired and predisposed to grow well in your garden.
- Mock orange also happens to be a lovely shrub with green foliage and deliciously scented white flowers that remind one of orange blossoms (though they’re not related botanically).
- I won’t need to fuss over my mock orange except to mulch it, prune it after flowering in the spring, and make sure I’ve planted it where it gets plenty of sun and air movement.
- It even makes a nice firewood and can be used as kindling.
- As an added bonus, I can take softwood cuttings of mock orange and propagate my own plants for free.
Which one sound like less work for basically the same reward of sweet, white blossoms?
If you love gardenias so much that the extra work is worth it, go for it! However, most homesteaders I know are short on time, so having a more natural option is always welcome!
Create Habits of Observation and Interaction with Nature
The only effective way to observe nature is to go out and explore it, whether its your own homestead or a completely new space.
David Holmgren, one of the founders of permaculture, is quoted as saying,
Good design depends on a free and harmonious relationship between nature and people, in which careful observation and thoughtful interaction provide the design inspiration.
In other words, the more we observe nature, the better and more comfortable a relationship we’ll have with her. Through that easy relationship, the designs will practically create themselves.
Well, ok, if I’m being honest, my relationship with nature hasn’t always been easy. When crops fail or insects invade or I can’t get rid of the Bermuda grass, it can feel like I’m seriously at odds with nature!
But that’s when I go back to the roots of my relationship with nature and the many times I’ve observed her abundance and care. If I wait patiently, the answers come and things work out.
The key is not to give up and to always be looking for ways to pay better attention!
Habits to Create to Pay Better Attention (Observe and Interact):
- Put down the device, lift your head, and look around.
- Engage with nature by touching things, digging a hole, planting a seed, sniffing a flower.
- Keep a journal or notebook with you in the car or in your pocket and write down what you notice. Don’t forget a pen or pencil!
- Similarly, draw what you see, hear, and even smell. It doesn’t matter if you art skills are poor. Drawing opens up a different part of our brain and allows us to record a unique perspective.
- When you’re outside, be quiet and still every now and then. What do you notice that you didn’t before?
- Look around for a child when you’re outside. How do they interact with nature? What are they doing?
Visit “Nature Observations” from Oregon State to go through more of these processes, especially if you’re doing it with your children.
Compile these observations over a year, if you can. Get a hammock and spend a little time in it each week, or even each day! A year’s worth of data will give you a basically accurate record of what is naturally occurring on your land.
Biomimicry – You Can’t Copy It If You Don’t See It!
Biomimicry is a word you might run into while studying permaculture. Simply put, biomimicry is mimicking what nature does by applying it to our needs.
What is the Most Famous Example of Biomimicry?
There are several examples of biomimicry that are widely known: camouflage being inspired by chameleon and octopus skin, or down coat insulation being inspired by goose down feathers are two of them.
Another simple example of biomimicry is the invention of Velcro.
In the 1940’s an engineer name George de Mestral noticed that the burdock burrs that got stuck in his dog’s fur while hunting had small hooks and loops that made them stick. He realized that the same technology could be applied to clothing as a way to quickly close openings and, voila, Velcro is still used today!
To learn more, read 50 of the World’s Best Biomimicry Examples.
Notice what Mestral did?
- He interacted with nature.
- He observed his dog.
- He examined his dog’s fur and the burrs.
- He pondered his observations and reached a conclusion.
- He turned his conclusion into an idea.
- He brought his idea to life and applied it to a need.
Biomimicry Example on My Homestead
I live in Missouri where we receive over 40″ of rainfall every year. Sometimes that water falls in abundance and we get water pooling and even flooding. It also means we have a lot of bodies of water – streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, etc.
When we moved onto our lot, I noticed that every time it rained, we would get water collecting in particular areas. These water-logged spots would stay wet for days because our clay soil wouldn’t allow it to sink in quickly (aka percolate).
I’ll never forget the looks I got from my neighbors as I ran around in a poncho with a clipboard and pencil during a rainstorm trying to draw a map of all the watery areas. I tried to record how and where the water pooled, including how it moved across the landscape.
These places were impossible to walk through, plant in, or otherwise use when soggy. I had to figure out a way to either fix the soil or move the water somewhere else.
As it happened, along about that time, I was walking along a water-soaked area beside a lake and noticed that there were several elder berry bushes growing there. I also saw some sandbar willow growing in standing water. The flood waters didn’t recede for several weeks but those bushes continued to grow just fine.
However, months later, in the middle of summer, that same soil was parched and dry but those bushes were still thriving. I had to ask myself how that was possible. Are there actually plants that will grow in wet soil AND dry soil.
Observations and Conclusions = Biomimicry for Me!
I sat down at thought about my observations, taking notes.
- What did they mean?
- Could plants live in both standing water and dry soil?
- Could I apply that to my own land?
- My wet spots dried out during the season and only retained water during heavy rain events. Could I plant these same plants – elder berry and willow – in these areas to absorb the extra water?
- Were there other plants that could live this way?
After doing more research and learning about something called rain gardens, I did in fact learn that I could do what nature was doing on the shore of my local lake.
I planted specific plants that can live in both water-logged soil and dry soil. These were native plants that had learned to adapt to a situation that was exactly like mine. I could simply mimic what nature was already doing in my area!
Homestead Challenge for Observe & Interact
Do this every day for at least one week.
- Get a lined journal or a blank page journal (better for drawing) and write the date and time of day.
- Go into your backyard, garden, or neighborhood.
- Write what you see, hear, and smell.
Pay attention to and record things like the season, plants you see, the temperature, animals you notice, people you meet.
- What are the plants, animals, and people doing?
- Are they interacting with each other?
- Do you see patterns emerge as you record information over the week?
When we first moved into our current house, we recorded that there were very few wild birds in our yard. After two years of living there and creating permaculture gardens, the wild bird population has exploded. They eat and poop in our compost, they help control our insect population, help us notice the changes in season and so much more!
None of which we would have really even noticed if we hadn’t taken time to observe, record, and interact.
Resources for Learning More About Observe and Interact & Biomimicry
How to Teach Nature Journaling, by John Muir Laws can be helpful if you enjoy learning from an actual book. This book is appropriate for both adults and children being mentored by a teacher (homeschool, forest school, any school). Incidentally, I buy my books used for less from Thriftbooks.com.
If you’d like to improve your nature drawing skills, The Herbal Academy has a course for that!
Online Resources for Observe, Interact, & Biomimicry
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